Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Writing in the shadows of Japan’s literary giants


Special To The Japan Times

We are not sure of the exact date, but we know it happened on a Thursday in the fall of 1915.

That morning, Ryunosuke Akutagawa was extremely excited, but also nervous and perhaps even a bit queasy. Then 23 years old and still a university student, he had yet to make his mark as an author. All he had to his credit were a few translations of short works by Anatole France and W.B. Yeats and a small number of original stories of his own, none of which had attracted attention. In short, he did not have much of a resume.

By comparison, the people he met later that day were confident intellectuals with established reputations — most were at least a decade older than him. They knew each other well and, for a while already, had been gathering weekly at the house of one of their peers to discuss literature and the arts, philosophy and politics. Joining them would have been an intimidating prospect even for a confident man, something Akutagawa definitely was not. But this was also a unique opportunity to meet the individual hosting this salon, the most celebrated author of his generation and a man Akutagawa deeply admired. His name was Natsume Soseki.

It turned out to be a mesmerizing experience. Akutagawa later wrote that he had been so impressed by “the master” — he always referred to Soseki in this manner — that he had been almost unable to relax. The encounter also marked the beginning of a relationship, unfortunately cut short when Soseki died the following year, which was extremely meaningful for Akutagawa. With the help of his new mentor he was able to republish “The Nose” (1916), which Soseki greatly admired, in a well-known magazine. This brought him fame almost overnight.

Though their friendship spanned only a few months, the lives of Soseki and Akutagawa cover a critical period in the history of Japanese fiction. In the twilight years of the Edo Period (1603-1868) the genre was in a sorry state, a mere shadow of its former grandeur. Worse, to quote Japanese scholar Marius B. Jansen, “(Fiction) was scorned by Japanese of taste and breeding.” Its allure was only marginally improved by the time Soseki was born in 1867, but things changed markedly in the following decades, thanks largely to exposure to the outside world and rising literacy rates. By the time Akutagawa committed suicide at age 35 in 1927 — exactly 90 years ago this summer — the literary landscape had been completely transformed. Neither man alone can claim credit for this revolution, but each played a critical role.

A life in letters

Akutagawa was born in Tokyo on March 1, 1892, in the year, month, day and hour of the dragon according to the Chinese calendar. It was an auspicious beginning, but his childhood, like much of his life, was difficult, if not entirely unhappy. Before his first birthday his mother lost her mind and he was sent to live with his maternal uncle. In “Death Register” (1926), a story heavily inspired by his personal experience, he described her thus: “My mother was a madwoman. I never once experienced anything resembling maternal affection from her. … Her face … was always an ashen color, with no suggestion of living vitality.” Akutagawa always feared that he would suffer the same fate.

Though physically weak and often sick, Akutagawa had a curious mind and read voraciously. He devoured Japanese fiction new and old, especially the “Konjaku Monogatari,” a compilation of hundreds of tales from the 11th century to which he would frequently return for inspiration. He also read the Chinese classics, particularly “Outlaws of the Marsh,” better known in Japan as “Suikoden,” a tale brilliantly illustrated by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and other 19th-century woodblock masters, as well as “Journey to the West,” which chronicles the adventures of a Tang Dynasty monk.

In his teens, Akutagawa began to learn English and, like Soseki, went on to major in that field at Tokyo Imperial University. During Soseki’s youth, few foreign books were available in Japanese translations, making knowledge of a European language essential to access the Western literary canon. While this was far less true in the first decade of the 1900s when Akutagawa was in high school, English was still important and it was mostly through that idiom that he discovered Guy de Maupassant, August Strindberg, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Voltaire, as well as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche and various classical Greek authors. By the time he met Soseki, Akutagawa had been described by a friend as the best-read mind of his generation.

Soseki’s childhood was traumatic. He was an unwanted child, the last of a brood of eight. At home, finances were tight, so he was offered for adoption early. Though his foster parents treated him well, their marriage was difficult and so, aged 9, Soseki was sent back to his original home, initially thinking he was living with his grandparents. This dislocation and the uncertainty of his early years may help to explain why he grew into a suspicious, anxious and depression-prone man who later in life was completely unable to express genuine affection for his wife or children.

Soseki’s generation straddled two worlds — and arguably was the last to do so — a fact reflected in his education, which blended Western and Tokugawa classical elements. As a child, Soseki attended Chinese school and learned to write kanshi (Chinese classical poetry) with ease and grace, gaining broad respect for his mastery of the medium even among intellectuals in China. By comparison, Akutagawa could read Chinese fairly well, but he was unable to write it. Subsequent generations would be able to do neither.

The ‘mosaicist’

The three years that followed Akutagawa’s meeting with Soseki were some of the happiest and most productive of his life. He wrote some 70 stories, just under half his entire output, including some of his best-known work. One of the highlights of this period was “Hell Screen” (1918), which depicts a painter ready to sacrifice anything for his art, even his humanity.

Early on, Soseki had admonished his protege to “ignore the crowd.” That, the older man said, was the only way an author could keep his integrity. By and large, Akutagawa heeded that advice. For instance, except for a small number of stories penned toward the end of his life, he stayed away from the shi-shosetsu (I-novel) genre, a highly auto-biographical mode of fiction unique to Japan that developed early in the 20th century and remained influential for decades. Akutagawa found such tell-all tales distasteful, a stance that might have made some of the more orthodox members of the literati ill-disposed toward him. He was often reprimanded for being “bookish” or “too deft,” or for emphasizing form over content. Some went so far as to say he lacked originality completely.

Such critiques were not entirely groundless: Studies have shown that more than a third of Akutagawa’s output can be linked to known literary sources in Asia or the West. Even “The Spider’s Thread” (1918), seemingly a straight Buddhist tale, has been linked to an anecdote with Christian overtones in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” which Akutagawa had recently read. But should such borrowing be surprising on the part of a man with an insatiable curiosity and a genius for synthesis?

Perhaps Japanese literary scholar Donald Keene put it best when he called Akutagawa a “mosaicist,” i.e., one who gathers bits and pieces from disparate origins to create something inventive and fresh — a mode for which he showed undisputed verve and flair.

The last two years of Akutagawa’s life were gloomy. He was plagued by insomnia, depression and thoughts of death. But his admiration for Soseki remained undimmed. “Every time I think of him, I am even more impressed with his sublime fury; it is beyond compare,” he wrote in the spring of 1927. Sadly, his boundless admiration for “the master” might have further magnified his own sense of failure. Writing in the margins of a late, unpublished manuscript, Akutagawa lamented that his personal tragedy had been “endeavoring to be great and finding to be small.” Few assessments in the history of Japanese literature have missed the mark by so much.