Rynosuke Akutagawa (ahk-ew-tah-gah-wah)—or Akutagawa Rynosuke, in the surname-first Japanese custom—was the pen name of Niihara Shinhara, who was born on March 1, 1892, in the Kyobashi district of Tokyo, Japan. Born into an educated family that once had a centuries-old tradition of service in the imperial court’s tea ceremonies, he was the son of dairy owner Toshizo “Binzo” Shinhara. His mother, Fuku Niihara, became mentally ill soon after her son’s birth; she died, insane, in 1902. His father, unable to provide for the infant, put his son into the care of a maternal uncle, Michiaki “Dosho” Akutagawa, from whom the future author’s surname was derived. The author later adopted the familiar name of Rynosuke (dragon son), claiming he was born in the hour, month, day, and year of the dragon, according to the Chinese calendar.
A lonely child with few friends, Akutagawa became absorbed in classical Chinese literature and popular Japanese fiction, particularly the work of Japanese authors Mori gai and Sseki Natsume. Akutagawa also was an avid reader of Western fiction. Beginning in 1910, he attended First High School, where he cultivated friendships with classmates Kan Kikuchi, Yz Yamamoto, Kume Masao, and Tsuchiya Bunmei—all of whom would become well-respected writers in Japan.
In 1913, Akutagawa, who would prove to be a brilliant student, was admitted to Tokyo Imperial University, where he majored in English literature. He concentrated on such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, William Morris, Jonathan Swift, Robert Browning, and Ambrose Bierce, many of whom would influence his work. He began writing soon after entering the university, where he and some high school friends published a literary magazine, Shinshicho (new currents of thought), featuring translations of English-language poems and fiction, as well as original works. Akutagawa’s first published writings in Shinshicho were his translations of works by William Butler Yeats and Anatole France. During his tenure at the university, Akutagawa proposed to a childhood sweetheart, Yayoi Yoshida. His adoptive parents, however, disapproved of his choice of mate, and the two did not...
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