Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa was a leading Japanese novelist of the Taisho era (1892-1927). He published “Rashomon” when he was a student at Tokyo University, and his literary talent was recognized by Soseki Natsume. While working for a newspaper company, he published a series of novels and firmly established himself as a novelist. However, as his health deteriorated, his works began to take on a more pessimistic tone. As we will see below, it was a prominent figure who established the Akutagawa Award after his death.

Life of Ryunosuke Akutagawa

 Akutagawa Ryunosuke(芥川 龍之介: あくたがわ りゅうのすけ) was born in Tokyo to a family of food vendors. When his mother went insane shortly after, Akutagawa was adopted by his mother’s family, the Akutagawa family. As a young boy, he developed an interest in literature and the arts. Akutagawa entered Daiichi High School, where he became friends with Kan Kikuchi. He and Kikuchi became lifelong friends.

 In 1913, Akutagawa entered the English Literature Department of Tokyo Imperial University. In 1914, he published the third magazine “Shin Shicho” (New Thought) and the novel “Old Man” in it. In 1915, he published “Rashomon,” which is said to have been modeled after the Japanese classic “Konjaku Monogatari-shu” (“A Collection of Ancient and Modern Tales”). It is set in Kyoto in a time of devastation. The protagonist, impoverished, is at first averse to theft. But after an encounter with an old woman in Rashomon or the Rasho gate, he is no longer hesitant to do evil in order to survive. This is an early masterpiece that skillfully depicts such psychological changes.

 In 1916, Akutagawa published “The Nose” and was recognized for his literary talent by the renowned writer Natsume Soseki. That same year, he graduated from university. In 1917, he published a collection of short stories entitled “Rashomon,” which included the above-mentioned works and “Imogayu” (Yam Gruel), among others. Thus, Akutagawa’s talent was recognized early on.

  Career as a Literari

 Akutagawa became an English instructor at the Yokosuka Naval Academy and worked for the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun, a newspaper company. He continued his writing career and published “Jigokuhen” (Hell Screen) in 1918.

 Jigokuhen is a Buddhist pictorial representation of the horrific torments that a person who has died and fallen into hell will undergo in hell. It is also called jigoku-zu or jigokuden (hell picture). By showing such scenes of hell, Buddhism tried to show the people good and evil and the correct teachings of Buddhism.
 Akutagawa’s “Jigokumen” is said to have been inspired by the Japanese classic “Uji Shui Monogatari”. The main character, a painter named Yoshihide, is assigned to create a folding screen of “Jigokuhen”. Yoshihide wanted a model for it. As a result, his beloved daughter died in agony in the flames. Yoshihide started to paint the scene with anguish at first, but gradually began to paint in ecstasy. His masterpiece was completed, but Yoshihide committed suicide. This work has been described as a demonstration of Akutagawa’s artistic supremacy, in which beauty takes precedence over ethics.

 He went on to publish a series of works, including “Hokyonin no Shi” (“The Death of a Disciple) . Thus, Akutagawa quickly established a firm position in Taisho literature. Some of the subjects were historical, such as “Konjaku Monogatari-shu,” others related to the period of civilization and enlightenment during the Meiji era, and still others were more contemporary.

 In 1921, Akutagawa went to China on an inspection tour as a correspondent for the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun. After returning to Japan, his health deteriorated. It was under such circumstances that he published “Yabu no naka” (In a Bamboo Grove) . In this work, a murder takes place in a bamboo grove. In order to investigate the case, witnesses and other persons involved were interviewed. However, the testimonies of each of them were so different from each other. Therefore, the story ends with the truth remaining unknown. This work achieved a certain level of success. As a result, the phrase “the truth is in a bamboo grove” (真相は藪の中) became a popular common expression. After this work, the pessimistic tendency was strongly reflected in his works.

 At this time, the Japanese literature was strongly influenced by the private novels of Naoya Shiga and others. At the same time, the proletarian literary movement just like that of Kobayashi Takiji was gaining momentum. Akutagawa was influenced by these writers, but tried to maintain his position of the “art for art”.

 The Great Kanto Earthquake

 At noon on September 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo and neighboring prefectures. The magnitude of the earthquake was 7.9 on the Richter scale, with a maximum intensity of 7, and Tsunami was also generated. Fires ravaged the city of Tokyo and continued until noon on September 3. The death toll was 90,000, 3.4 million people were affected, and about 450,000 houses were burned down or destroyed. The amount of damage was more than three times the annual national budget of Japan at the time. By reading Akutagawa’s articles on this great earthquake, we can better understand his thoughts and personality.
 Akutagawa describes the earthquake in his “On the Great Earthquake of September 1, 1923”. Akutagawa was at home helping prepare lunch when the earthquake struck. When the earthquake struck, Akutagawa immediately went outside with his children in his arms. Fortunately, Akutagawa’s house did not collapse. He walked around the neighborhood to visit his neighbors. Looking at the city of Tokyo from a high vantage point, he could see that the sky was stained with the colors of dust and fire. He then gathered rice, candles, canned food, and other supplies. As night fell, the fires in Tokyo grew more intense. The scene was “just like watching a great smelting furnace”. There was no electricity or gas service. The sky was on fire all night long.
 On September 2, Akutagawa walked around the city with a friend. They heard that Tokyo and Yokohama had been completely wiped out. Not knowing if his friends and siblings were safe, he became worried. There was a possibility that the fire could spread to Akutagawa’s place of residence as well. Therefore, the Akutagawa family decided to evacuate with the bare minimum of belongings. Akutagawa decided to take one scroll of Soseki Natsume’s calligraphy with him.
 After the crisis of the earthquake was over, Akutagawa was asked to write a something about this major event. So he wrote what he thought of it. He wrote about his impressions of walking through the disaster-stricken city. Unlike in normal times, the affected people began to show a sense of friendliness. They engaged in friendly talk to their neighbors, offering each other cigarettes and food. This was seen everywhere. “It was just a beautiful sight to see the outpouring of friendliness that you don’t usually see. I want to cherish those memories forever”.
 Akutagawa also noticed that he had a certain sense of nostalgia for Tokyo. Until then, Akutagawa had been aware that although he was born in Tokyo, he had never felt any sense of nostalgia for the Tokyo of that time. He was even proud of it. One of the reasons for this was the rapid loss of the Tokyo scenery he had grown familiar with. The Tokyo that existed just before the earthquake was, for Akutagawa, a “mundane Tokyo”. The earthquake caused a mass exodus of people from the countryside to return to their hometowns. Akutagawa’s friend, watching the scene, told him that only Edo native residents would remain in Tokyo until the end of their lives. Akutagawa found this reassuring and felt that he himself still had the feelings of the nostalgia. He found himself reminiscing and even glorifying the once mundane Tokyo.
 He also described the impact of the Great Kanto Earthquake on the novelist. First of all, he says that while the Great Kanto Earthquake did have a profound impact, it would not have the kind of impact that changes one’s life. This is because a major earthquake is a natural disaster, not a human creation. Nevertheless, there may be a change in style. From Akutagawa’s point of view, before the earthquake, Japanese novels dealt with delicate human psychology, as was common in the genre of the personal novel. However, the recent disaster has caused people to experience great turmoil and intense love and hate. Therefore, he said, “works with thicker curves of emotion” would be created in the future.

 Late Years

 In 1926, Akutagawa published a series of novels, including “Kappa”. It was around this time that Akutagawa became acquainted with Tatsuo Hori, who had been a university student, and taught him how to write novels. kappa is presented as the story of a mental patient’s experience. The protagonist claims to have lived in the land of kappa (water imps) and narrates his experience. It is said that everything in the land of kappa is the opposite of human society. For example, babies can decide for themselves whether or not to be born into the world. In this work, witty criticisms and warnings to the Japanese society of the time are developed. At the same time, the content reflects Akutagawa’s own real life and is a criticism of himself.

 In 1927, Akutagawa committed suicide by ingesting a large amount of sleeping pills. In his will, Akutagawa explained the reason for his suicide: “We human beings do not easily commit suicide for the sake of a single incident. I commit suicide for the sum total of my past life.”. At the time, this suicide was a sensational event.

The Akutagawa Award and Kan Kikuchi

 In 1935, Kan Kikuchi, a friend of Akutagawa’s from his student days, established the Akutagawa Ryunosuke Award, which has remained an authoritative literary award to today.

 Akutagawa speaks of Kan Kikuchi in his “He is like a big brother to me”. Akutagawa himself said that he never felt bored or uncomfortable in Kikuchi’s company because Kikuchi makes Akutagawa “feel as if he were with his older brother”. The reason Akutagawa feels so is partly due to Kikuchi’s outstanding academic knowledge. But the most important reason is that his mature personality. For Kikuchi is a person who has gone through a lot of hardship. Kikuchi became an admirable hard-working, and inclusive person., which is why Akutagawa loved him as a big brother.

 In “Rational, Yet At the Same Time, a Lot of Humanity,” Akutagawa also describes Kikuchi as a man with a clear mind and a brave character who fulfills his rational beliefs. At the same time, he has a great deal of humanity. For this reason, he also respects him. In terms of his writing, Kikuchi is described as a man of art for life.

Ten Rules for the Novel

This is my English translation of “Ten Rules for the Novel (小説作法十則)” in 1926 by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Translated by Izumi, all rights reserved

 (1) You should understand that the novel is the most non-artistic of all literature. The essential part of the literature consists of the poetry only. Therefore, the novel belongs to the literature only by virtue of the poetry within the novel. Therefore, the novel is in fact no different from history or biography.
 (2) The novelist is a historian or biographer, except that he is a poet. Therefore, they must have a close relatinship with their own life (of a country in an era). The works of Japanese novelists from Murasaki Shikibu to Ihara Saikaku attest to this fact
 (3) The poet always appeals to someone with his own true heart (See how love poems arose to flirt with women). If a novelist is a historian or a biographer more than a poet, then an author of an autobiography, a kind of biography, must also exist within the novelist himself. Therefore, the novelist must face the bleakness of his own life more often than the ordinary person. For a poet in the novelist has always poor execution. If a poet in the novelist is more powerful than the historian or the biographer, he could not avoid his life becoming more and more outpouring and more and more miserable. Edgar Allan Poe is a good example of this. (If Napoleon or Lenin had been poets, needless to say, they would have been poor novelists.)
 (4)The novelist’s talent can be divided into three parts: the poet’s talent, the historian’s or biographer’s talent, and the social prudence, according to the three principles mentioned above. It was considered a greatly difficult task by our predecessors to keep these three talents from conflicting with each other (Those who do not find it a difficult task are of mediocre talent). Someone who wants to be the novelist is like a driver who has not graduated from driving school and drives a car on the street. He should not expect to live a life of peace and tranquility.
 (5) If someone should not expect peace and tranquility in one’s life, then one must rely on physical strength, money, and single-mindedness (i.e., bohemianism). However, we must recognize the fact that the degree to which both of these are useful is less than expected. If you want to live a relatively peaceful life, you should not become a novelist after all. Remember that the novelists who can lead relatively peaceful lives are always the ones whose biographies are so obscure in detail.
 (6) However, if a novelist wants to live a relatively peaceful life in this world, a novelist should train his talent regarding social prudence more than any other talent. However, this is not synonymous with the reason for creating original works. (It is also, of course, not contradictory). The talent regarding social prudence is as follows. The best is the gift of mastery over one’s destiny (though it is not guaranteed that one can master it or not).The worst is the talent to handle any fool with care.
 (7) Literature is an art that relies on the sentences for expression. Therefore, of course, the novelist must not neglect the training of his writing. If he cannot be ecstatic about the beauty of a single word, then he is somewhat deficient in the qualifications of a novelist. The reason why Ihara Saikaku earned the name “Oranda Saikaku” is not necessarily because he broke conventions in the novels of his time. It was because he knew the beauty of language, which he had come to know through his experience in haikai.
 (8) Novels in a given country and period are naturally subject to various conventions (these are determined by history). Someone who wants to be the novelist should strive to follow these conventions. Its benefit is, first, to be able to create one’s own novels on the shoulders of one’s predecessors. Second, because you appear to be serious, you will not be barked at by the dogs of the literary circles. However, this is also not synonymous with producing original work (Needless to say, there is no contradiction). Many geniuses would trample these conventions underfoot. (But whether they trample these conventions underfoot as much as the ordinary person thinks is not guaranteed). They thus run, if only somewhat, outside the destiny, i.e., the social progress (or change) of literature. It is not like water flowing through a ditch. He is only a planet outside the literary solar system. Therefore, it is natural that his works are not understood in the present age. Moreover, even in later generations, if one gets acquaintance with them, they will be found and become one’s own. (This is not only relevant to novels, but to all forms of literature) (9) Someone who wants to be the novelist should always be wary of responding to philosophical, natural scientific, or economic scientific ideas. No thought or theory can dominate the whole life of the human animal as long as the human animal remains unchanged. Therefore, you should know that it is inconvenient to react (at least consciously) to such ideas in order to have a close relationship with the life of the human beast, that is, with human life.To see things as they are and paint them as they are is called sketching. The convenient way for a novelist is to sketch. However, “as they are” here means “as they are as he himself sees. It is not “as they are with a due bill”.
 (10) Any novel writing rules are not the golden rule.
Of course, these “Ten Rules for the Novel” are not the golden rules. After all, those who can become novelists would become novelists, and those who cannot become novelists would not be able to become novelists.

 Addition. I am a skeptic in all things. However, I confess that I have never been a skeptic in the presence of poetry, even if I wanted to become one somehow. At the same time, I also confess that I have always tried to be a skeptic even before poetry.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Source: National Diet Library, Portraits of Modern Japanese (https://www.ndl.go.jp/portrait/)

 People associated with Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Soseki Soseki: Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s novelist mentor during his student days. After graduation, he continued to study under Soseki. After Soseki’s death, Akutagawa Ryunosuke wrote several works in remembrance of Soseki.

Kan Kikuchi: Kikuchi and Akutagawa had been friends since their high school days. Kikuchi himself is also a well-known writer.

Recommended or Selected References

早澤正人『芥川龍之介論 : 初期テクストの構造分析』鼎書房, 2018

庄司達也編『芥川龍之介ハンドブック 』鼎書房, 2015

宮坂覺編『芥川龍之介と切支丹物 : 多声・交差・越境』翰林書房, 2014