Biography of Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa proved to be one of Japan's most important intellectuals over his short career during the Taishō period (1912–1926). Akutagawa is regarded as the "father of the Japanese short story" and the Akutagawa Prize—Japan's premier literary award—is named after him. At thirty-five, he committed suicide through an overdose of barbital.

Akutagawa's first name, Ryūnosuke ("Son of Dragon"), was a tribute to the fact that he was born in the Year of the Dragon, in the Month of the Dragon, on the Day of the Dragon, and at the Hour of the Dragon. Ryūnosuke was an introverted child, spending most of his time reading classical Chinese literature and works by influential Japanese authors Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki. His second published story, "The Nose," earned a letter of praise from Sōseki, his early childhood idol.

After studying English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, Akutagawa continued to write works based on classical and historical texts, as well as haikus under the pen name Gaki. After serving with the Naval Engineering School as an English instructor, he spent four months in China to report for Osaka Mainichi Shimbun, a daily newspaper. His physical and mental health soured as a result of this trip and he never made a full recovery before the end of his life.

He had been worried about inheriting his mother's mental illness throughout his life and although his adopted mother, Fuki, played a more significant role in his life, he had always identified strongly with his biological mother. The theme of impending madness runs throughout his published works. When he began suffering from visual hallucinations and nervousness, his fear was cemented. After a failed attempt at suicide with a friend of his wife's, he ultimately ended his life. His suicide note mentioned a "vague insecurity" about the future. Although his works have suffered no small amount of unscholarly mistranslation and exoticism over the years (particularly in the 1950s), newer and better translations are becoming more widely distributed. Since his first publications, he has never gone out of print, and indeed his popularity continues to grow.

The novelist Haruki Murakami has noted that stylistic genius, unrivaled depiction of psychology, aphoristic wit, and a legacy of literary transformation guaranteed Akutagawa's reputation as "a writer of genuinely national stature" in Japan.

Study Guides on Works by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

First published in the Japanese literary publication Shinchō in January 1922, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's short story "In a Grove" (or "In a Bamboo Grove") is about a young samurai killed in mysterious circumstances. Pieced together from contradictory...

This selection of bleak stories features some of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s most acclaimed short works. Although they were not published together during his lifetime, they hold together as a collection of his earlier and most corrosively modernist...