Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Japanese Culture in Literature by Pilar Triviño


What comes to a person’s mind when he or she hears the word “Japan”? It would probably be the country and its beautiful scenery, or it could be the delicious food they serve such as sushi and ramen, it could also be the samurais and Geishas and their centuries old traditions. Apart from the scenery, the food, and cultural icons, another word that could be associated with Japan “literature”. There have been a number of notable Japanese authors of novels, short stories and poems who have described the culture of the Japanese during their time.

One of these authors is Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a Japanese prolific prewar writer, who has gained international recognition. He was known for his stylistic virtuosity and integrating Japan’s past in his short stories. In his writing, Akutagawa was influenced by his belief of literature being practiced universally and could bring both Western and Japanese culture together. The most dominant theme of his stories would be culture and the formation of cultural identity during the time when Japan was most open to the outside influences. He wrote stories based on existing works from different cultures and time periods and would either rewrite the story then add modern sensibilities or he would create new stories by using the ideas he found in existing works. In most of his stories, women always appeared to be dominating, aggressive, deceitful and selfish whereas men were often the victims of women who attempts to control the actions of both her lover and her husband.

One of Akutagawa’s famous works would be Rashomon and Other Short Stories, a book, which includes a number of short stories, including Yabu No Naka, if translated in English, would be Within a Grove.

Within a Grove is a story about a murder investigation of a man who was found dead in a grove. This story focuses on the accounts of seven people in the story these are: The woodcutter, The Buddhist priest, a police officer, an old lady, The suspected killer, A young lady, and the ghost of the dead man. Each giving their perspective of what happened and what they saw.

The first testimony given was by a woodcutter who saw the samurai lying down dead and cold. The woodcutter indicated where he saw the man, what were the surroundings and he told the commissioner that he did not find any bloody sword near the man.

The second was a Buddhist priest who witnessed the man travelling with a woman, who he believed was his wife. In his testimony, he also included where they were heading. He gave every detail he remembered about the woman – what she was wearing, his estimation of her height, the description of the horse – and of course, the description of the man who was murdered.

The next testimony was given by a police man who caught a very notorious criminal, who fell from a horse. He was wearing a blue kimono. The criminal named Tajomaru would be the prime suspect of the case because of the evidences found in the scene of the crime.

The next testimony would be an old woman, who claimed that the man murdered was her son – in – law and that his wife was his daughter. The old woman revealed that the man who was a Samurai in Kokufu, his name was Kanazawa no Takehiko and he was twenty – six years old. His wife’s name was Masago, she was young and free – spirited, and was believed to know no man aside from her husband. They were on their way to Wakasa.

The next testimony was from the suspected killer, who was Tajomaru, a notorious criminal. He admitted he encountered Takehiko and Masago and became their travelling companion. He became attracted Masago and had the urge to seduce her. He then narrated how he lured Takehiko to go into the grove and tied against the cedar, then lured Takehiko’s wife to follow inside the grove just to seduce her in front of her husband. He also told them how he killed the husband in the sword fight and Masago managed to escape the grove.

The second to the last testimony was given by a woman, who was seen in the temple. This woman was Masago, the wife of the dead samurai. In her testimony, Masago was forced to yield to Tajomaru. She became unconscious and once she gained back her consciousness, she saw the pain in her husband’s eyes. She could see anger, shame, and grief. Her husband asked her to kill him and without hesitation she did what she was asked. Once again, she lost consciousness. When she woke up her husband was dead.

The last testimony was by the dead samurai through a medium. He told how all the events occurred, how his wife betrayed him and he was left in the grove. He then retrieved the sword his wife dropped and killed himself as he laid in silence.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa wrote Yabu no Naka (Within a Grove) in a very unique way. This could be explained in three reasons. First is because of the narration of the story. Unlike other short stories being narrated by one person, Yabu no Naka has multiple narrations of each of the characters. Each giving their point – of – view of what happened, what they say, and who killed the samurai. Although the story has multiple narrations, it follows a flow of thought and the readers would also be able to put the puzzle pieces of the story together.

The second reason is because Akutagawa arranged the narrators based on the character’s encounter with the dead samurai and with how much they know about the murder. The first three testimonies, which were from the woodcutter, the Buddhist priest, and the police officer, only had little or no encounter at all with the Samurai.

  • The wood cutter only reported what he saw on the crime scene
  • The Buddhist, although he saw the couple alive, he only mentioned where he saw them, to what their direction they were going, and what they were wearing
  • The Police officer had no encounter with the samurai and Masago, but he was able to catch the prime suspect of the murder.

The first three men who was interrogated by the high commissioner, only knew a little about the man and were interrogated for the investigation purposes. The next person interviewed was the mother – in – law of the murdered man. Although she knew little about what happened, she knew the samurai and had close relations with her for he was her son – in – law. The next two testimonies were from the criminal, named Tajomaru and the man’s wife, Masago. These two were with him before he died, therefore they had know what happened to the Samurai. However, these two accounts were contradicting each other. The last account was from the dead samurai himself, who said that he killed himself. He was last because he knew everything that happened.

The last reason would be the different depictions of Japan’s culture in the story in some of the accounts. One would be Japan’s religion, which is Buddhism, which was seen in the account of the priest. Another would be the clothing, which was wearing Kimonos and this was indicated in the different accounts as they described what Tajomaru, Takehiro, and Masago were wearing. Another depiction of their culture would be practicing seppuku of the Japanese suicide. This was only done when they have committed something shameful to their family.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s method of writing Yabu no Naka was very unique. The narration was written in such a way the readers would see the different point – of views of the characters in the story. There is no fixed narration. In addition, he was able to arrange the testimonies in the story in such a way the readers may see the relationship between the characters and how their testimonies were all sequenced. Lastly, he was able to depict some of the practices in Japan during his time.

Work Cited:

Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke. Rashomon, and Other Stories. New York: Liveright Pub., 1952. Print.

Arita, Eriko. “Ryunosuke Akutagawa In Focus.” The Japan Times. 18 Mar. 2012. Web. Mar. 2016. <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2012/03/18/general/ryunosuke-akutagawa-in-focus/#.Vu9NJM4Qmvs&gt;.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Akutagawa Ryunosuke.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.






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