Ueda Akinari Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ueda Akinari 1734-1809

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Wayaku Tarō, Senshi Kijin, and Ueda Muchō) Japanese short story writer, prose writer, and poet.

Akinari is best known for his stories of the supernatural collected in Ugetsu Monogatari (1776; Tales of Moonlight and Rain) and Harusame Monogatari (1907; Tales of the Spring Rain). Writing at a time when Edo (Tokyo) was replacing Osaka-Kyoto as the center of culture and literary activity, Akinari is considered the last great writer of the Osaka-Kyoto literary circle.

Biographical Information

Akinari was born July 25, 1734, in Sonezaki, an area of Osaka devoted to prostitution. His mother, who likely worked as a prostitute, abandoned him shortly after his birth; his father is unknown. However, while Akinari acknowledged this account of his background, it has been challenged by recent scholars who claim he was actually the illegitimate son of a samurai. He was adopted by a prosperous merchant, Ueda Mosuke, in 1737, and the following year contracted smallpox. The disease was nearly fatal and its after-effects included life-long poor health and deformed fingers on each hand. In later life, Akinari, sensitive about his physical appearance, wrote under pseudonyms that referred to his deformities, such as Senshi Kijin (“Pruned Cripple”) and Ueda Muchō (“Ueda the Crab”). Although his education began fairly late, Akinari eventually attended the Kaitokudō School in Osaka, where literary historians believe he studied the Japanese classics and began writing haiku. In 1760, he married Ueyama Tama, a Kyoto native who worked in the home of his adoptive parents. Akinari and his wife adopted a daughter, Mineko. When his adoptive father died in 1761, Akinari assumed control of the family business, a paper and oil shop. In 1771, the business and residence were destroyed by fire, leaving Akinari's family homeless and without means of support. In 1773, Akinari moved to Kashima-mura, where he studied medicine for the next two years. Although he was a successful physician, his practice suffered from his own poor health, and he was continually distressed by his limited ability to alleviate the pain and suffering of those in his care. He left the profession in 1788, apparently because his misdiagnosis caused the death of a young patient, and returned to a life of scholarship and writing. In 1789, both Akinari's stepmother and mother-in-law died, and in 1793 he and his wife moved to Kyoto. In 1797, his wife died and Akinari, whose eyesight was failing, was cared for by Mineko for the next three years. Although he had always been somewhat reclusive and misanthropic, his declining health and the loss of his wife contributed to his generally pessimistic outlook. In 1802, apparently preoccupied with death, he designed his own tombstone and destroyed a number of his manuscripts. Nonetheless, he continued to write, producing several works detailing his scholarly pursuits and offering his opinions on a variety of subjects. At the time of his death, Akinari was working on a collection of historical tales. He died in 1809 at the home of a friend.

Major Works

Akinari's first publications belonged to the genre of katagi-bon (“character book”) and included Shodō kikimimi sekenzaru (1766) and Seken tekake katagi (1767). In 1776, Akinari published his first effort in the yomihon (“books for reading”) genre, Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which comprised nine individual stories. Scholars disagree on when the work was actually composed. Akinari's preface is dated 1768, but many literary historians believe, based on the profoundly pessimistic tone of the stories, that they were written sometime after the 1771 fire that left the author in a state of bitterness and despair. The stories, most of which are adaptations of well-known Chinese and Japanese fables and tales, which in turn were based on actual events, are full of mystery, suspense, and elements of the supernatural, not unlike the Gothic romances that were flourishing around the same time in European literature. Tales of Moonlight and Rain is generally considered Akinari's masterpiece. He then turned to writing and publishing collections of poetry in both the waka and haiku forms, but these never approached the success he had achieved with Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Toward the end of his life he produced Kinsa (1804) and Tandai shōshin roku (1808), collections of scholarly essays, opinions, and accounts of his experiences. At the time of his death, he was working on what would be his most enduring work after Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Tales of the Spring Rain contained both historical and human interest tales, ten in all, and was circulated only in manuscript form until the publication of part of the original manuscript in 1907, by which time some of the ten stories had been lost. The complete version did not appear until 1951.

Critical Reception

Akinari's short stories, particularly those collected in Tales of Moonlight and Rain, were highly acclaimed in his own time. Today these works are considered the finest example of the yomihon genre produced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Critics praise Akinari's knowledge of Chinese literary traditions as well as those of his own country, his technical mastery, and his originality as a storyteller. According to Leon M. Zolbrod, Akinari's synthesis of the styles, images, and themes of Chinese and Japanese literature, both classical and popular, resulted in “a highly original style of narrative prose.” Zolbrod further credits Akinari with achieving respectability for prose fiction in Japan and helping to establish the genre “as a means of expressing historical criticism and cultural values.” Many scholars, including Dennis Washburn, consider Tales of Moonlight and Rain a classic of Japanese literature. Washburn observes, however, that despite the work's many praiseworthy features, it poses problems for modern readers who are unfamiliar with its Chinese and Japanese source material, uninterested in supernatural tales, or unable to appreciate Akinari's combination of elegant and everyday language. Some scholars have focused on Akinari's personal history as a means of illuminating his prose writing. Blake Morgan Young, for example, contends that the darkly pessimistic tone of Tales of the Spring Rain can be traced to the author's general outlook on life, which became darker as he grew older. During Akinari's last years, according to Young, “he was noted for being a sulking, self-scorning old man, bitterly sarcastic toward the world and its people, and feeling that the masses were full of lies and immorality.”