Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927,) pseudonym Chōkōdō Shujin or Gaki, was a prolific Japanese writer. One of Japan’s foremost literary figures, he was best known for his stories centered on events in the Japanese past and for his stylistic flair.
Born in Tokyo during the Taishō period, Akutagawa studied English literature at Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) 1913–16. He established himself as one of Japan’s leading literary figures with short stories such as Rashōmon (1915) and Jigoku hen (1918, Hell Screen.) These early stories are based on 12th- and 13th-century Chinese and Japanese tales but retold using modern psychology and a highly individual style.
In 1921, Akutagawa served as a reporter for the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun in China, visiting Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and other southeastern China cities. Returning to Japan, he published Yabu no Naka (1922; In a Grove.)
In 1922, Akutagawa turned toward autobiographical fiction. Suffering chronic insomnia, self-loathing and paranoia, Akutagawa composed prolific works of criticism and autobiographical essays such as Saihō no Hito (1927, Man of the West,) the stories Genkaku Sanbō (1927, The Villa of Genkaku) and Shinkiro (1927, Mirage,) and three masterpieces: Kappa, Aru Ahō no Isshō (1927, The Life of a Stupid Man,) and Haguruma (1927, Spinning Gears.) He killed himself at age 35.
Akutagawa is one of the most widely translated of all Japanese writers. Several of his stories have been made into films. The film classic Rashōmon (1950; directed by Akira Kurosawa) is based on a combination of Akutagawa’s Rashōmon and Yabu no naka (In a Grove.)
The Akutagawa Prize, established by author Kan Kikuchi in 1935, is Japan’s top literary award for promising new writers. Harvard’s Jay Rubin produced Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006,) an acclaimed translating of Akutagawa’s 19 stories.
Human life is as evanescent as the morning dew or a flash of lightning.