Ryūnosuke Niihara Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Rynosuke Akutagawa (ahk-ew-tah-gah-wah) was the leading short-fiction writer of the Taish period (1912-1926). He was born in Tokyo’s Tsukiji foreign settlement. His original surname was Niihara, after his father, Toshiz Niihara, owner of dairy farms serving Tsukiji’s foreign residents, and his given name was Rynosuke, commemorating his birth in the year of the dragon. Because his parents, according to Japanese superstition, were at ill-omened ages when he was born, Akutagawa, to avoid bad luck, was “abandoned” and handed over to his father’s friend and then accepted back into the Niihara family as a “foundling.” His mother, Fuku, blaming herself for the death of her eldest daughter from meningitis eight months after her son was born, became mentally ill, an affliction which Rynosuke later believed he had inherited. After his mother became incapable of caring for him, he was reared by his mother’s elder brother, Michiaki Akutagawa. Two years after his mother’s death, he was formally adopted by Michiaki and took the Akutagawa surname. These complicated events left the impressionable child scarred by shame and distrustful of others.nosuke[Akutagawa, Ryunosuke]}{$S[A]Niihara, Ry{umacr}nosuke[Niihara, Ryunosuke];Akutagawa, Ry{umacr}nosuke}nosuke[Akutagawa, Ryunosuke]}nosuke[Akutagawa, Ryunosuke]}

In his youth, much of it spent in the care of his unmarried aunt, Fuki, Akutagawa was encouraged in his interests in literature and the arts and avidly read traditional literature, especially illustrated storybooks (kusazshi) of the Ed period (1600-1868) featuring ghost tales. A sickly child prone to convulsions, he nevertheless excelled at school and started writing stories and poems in primary school. In middle school, he was reading widely in Japanese and Chinese literature and among translated European authors. During his years at the Tokyo First High School, where he majored in English literature, his friends thought him kind and considerate, while outsiders considered him aloof. He graduated second in his class in 1913 and entered the English literature department of Tokyo Imperial University. He published translations from English and his first original piece, “Rnen” (old age), in the student magazine Shinshicho (new thought tides). In 1914 a literary periodical published his stories “Hyottoko” (the comic mask) and “Rashmon,” the tale of a twelfth century Kyoto underling who degenerates into a criminal by stealing the clothes off an old woman. As a university student, he became acquainted with the novelist Natsume Sseki and attended Thursday Club meetings at his home. Akutagawa first received wide recognition for the humorous 1916 story “The Nose,” about a Buddhist priest’s preoccupation with the unusual length of his nose.

His student successes caught the eyes of publishers, and established writers such as Sseki praised his talent. In 1916, the...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)