Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Social Satire in Kappa: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s Political Sensibilities

Here's another great piece just in from part-time Japonologist and full-time dandy Leopold Adelgonde Hauspie III, of Belgium:
In Kappa (1927), Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927) takes the reader on a journey into a subterranean land inhabited by a species of eerie-miened water sprites that carries the same name as the novella’s title. Borrowing from a longstanding literary tradition of travelogue-inspired, satirical utopias initiated by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1735), Akutagawa presents a human protagonist embarking on a series of encounters with Kappas who, despite their amphibian appearance, are endowed with a character, behavior, and society that in many respects closely resembles that of humans. Claiming to see the author’s shadow looming over almost every corner of the work, critics have often regarded Kappa as being, above all, a lampoon of Akutagawa’s personal life and mental anguish around the time he composed it. However, considering the type of novels upon which it is modeled, in addition to the abundance of grotesque magnifications and absurdist inversions of aspects of contemporary Japanese society that Akutagawa lets his protagonist witness in Kappaland, the story should be considered as least as much as a piece of scintillating social satire. In this respect, Kappa can perhaps be interpreted as Akutagawa’s answer to the writings of the then-in-vogue proletarian literature movement. In this paper, I will first try to place Kappa in the long line of (mainly Western) utopian works and social satires that antecede it, also briefly situating the novella in its contemporary Japanese literary context. In the second part, I would like to explore in some detail Akutagawa’s attitude toward the political turmoil of his time and his outlook on the feasibility and desirability of a literature dealing with political or social problems. In the last part, finally, I will explore the dimension of social satire in Kappa.

‘Oh, by the way, you’re a socialist aren’t you?’
With no hesitation, I replied, ‘Qua’ (This is the Kappanese for our ‘yes.’)
(Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Kappa, 1927)
During his lifetime, and even more so after his suicide, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927) was incessantly the target of the vitriolic criticism from adherents of the proletarian literature movement. These writers and critics accused him of being a petty bourgeois disengaged from social and political reality, or an ivory-tower intellectual utterly unconcerned with the ordeals of the working-class masses. In this paper I would like to provide evidence that this assessment of Akutagawa, if not totally wrong, is at least a gross exaggeration. As I will show, Akutagawa’s own attitude toward the proletarian literature movement that was rising in 1920s Japan was far more benevolent than vice versa. This can be noticed, for example, in some essays in which he took up the defense of the notion of politically inspired literature. Moreover, with the novella Kappa 河童 (1927), he even provided a work himself that deals with themes at the time monopolized by proletarian literature.

In Kappa, which was inspired by Gulliver’s Travels, a mental patient visits the land of the Kappas, a species of water imps from Japanese folklore, and becomes witness of a whole range of outrageous social wrongs that are inversions or exaggerations of Japanese societal problems. Hayashi Fusao 林房雄, one of Japan’s most prominent proletarian writers, confessed to be both intrigued and displeased by the fact that a piece of “satirical literature that integrated criticism of all possible social phenomena into a single work was written first by Akutagawa before a socialist writer could venture to do such a thing.” (Yoshida 1942: 319) Yet Akutagawa’s reputation of total self-absorption has induced many scholars to interpret Kappa as being essentially the author’s own caricature portrait, instead of an attempt at social satire. Though it is certainly not my intent to deny Kappa’s many striking parallels with Akutagawa’s personal life, I nevertheless think it would be unfair to reduce the work to mere self-expression and to ignore the profusion of sparkling, witty satire that tackles numerous aspects of contemporary Japanese society.

In this paper, I will first contextualize Kappa in the long line of utopian and satirical novels that anteceded it, also providing some information on the background of its contemporary literary scene. Next, I would like to examine to what extent Akutagawa was really as unconcerned with societal problems and their reflection in literature as he was often accused of. Finally, I will try to controvert the claim that Kappa is almost exclusively about the author himself, and have a closer look at the dimension of social satire which, as I will argue, is an equally crucial aspect of the novella.
Kappa‘s literary precursors and contemporaries
“Gulliver in a Kimono”
(Anonymous Time reviewer, 1947)
Akutagawa, who had studied English Literature at university, was an avid reader of Western fiction, and, as we can glean from his autobiographical works, until the very last months of his life he spent a great deal of his time rummaging through the bookshelves of the Maruzen bookstore, Tokyo’s mecca of foreign-language literature at the time. Naturally, this absorption with Western writings showed through in his own works, to the extent even that people have criticized them for being mere patchworks pieced together from a motley range of sources. Kappa, too, betrays influences of a wide variety of Western novels, but the closest affinity that can be noticed is with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), works which are rooted themselves in a longstanding ‘utopian tradition’ of stories dealing with imaginative lands.

This tradition was initiated by Thomas More’s Utopia (1515-16) and Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas Solis (1623), both of which described ideal societies. A considerable innovation to the genre was made by Jonathan Swift in his Gulliver’s Travels, as he added a critical quality to it by making the non-existing lands depicted in the work satirical versions of the society he lived in. This is exactly was Kappa does too, which should not surprise us since, as Tsuruta Kin’ya pointed out, “Akutagawa admitted in his letter to a poet friend, Saitō Mokichi, that he was writing … Kappa after the fashion of Gulliver’s Travels.” (Tsuruta 1982: 37) For his use, in Aesopean fashion, of nonhuman creatures to lampoon certain the evils of humanity, Akutagawa was indebted to Swift as well, and perhaps also to Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs (1793). As Yoshida Sei’ichi (1955: 125) has shown, similarities with Erewhon, a social satire by Samuel Butler (a writer of whom Akutagawa had no less than nine works in his possession (Ishizaki 1990: 332)), are rather conspicuous too. In both stories, the protagonist chances upon another land during an excursion deep into the mountains and, even more strikingly, in Erewhon as well, children enter this world voluntarily, having moreover to sign a document to assume full responsibility for their choice to be born. Ideological inspiration for his critique of capitalism in Kappa Akutagawa might have found in News from Nowhere (1890), a socialist utopia authored by William Morris, whose life and work, incidentally, had been the subject of his graduation thesis at university.

Still many other possible Western influences have been mentioned by critics (including Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Anatole France’s L’Île des Pingouins and Balthasar), but somewhat less often noticed are the precursors Kappa may have had in classical Japanese and Chinese literature. In both traditions, we find an age-old genre sometimes labeled as senkyō tairyū setsuwa 仙境滞留説話 (‘Tales of a Sojourn in an Enchanted Land’) with which Kappa has certain motifs in common. The traveler of Tao Qian’s 陶潜fifth-century classic Tōkagen-ki 桃花源記 (‘The Peach Blossom Spring’), for instance, like Kappa’s protagonist enters the enchanted land through a hole in the ground (in this case in a mountain), and with both Tōkagen-ki and the old Japanese legend of Urashima Tarō 浦島太郎, Kappa shares the figure of the fisherman as an agent who is able to commute between the normal and fantastical world.

But whatever influences of foreign and classical Chinese and Japanese literature Kappa might have had, it was extremely innovative in that it revalued, and helped to reintroduce, both the fantastical and the satirical in contemporary Japan, two features which had been largely dormant in a literary world reigned for nearly half a century by seriousness and verisimilitude, the desiderata of Tsubouchi Shōyō’s 坪内逍遥 brand of realism. Save for a few exceptions (among which is Natsume Sōseki’s 夏目漱石 Wagahai wa neko de aru 吾輩は猫である (‘I am a Cat’, 1905-06)), Japanese literature had almost completely lost its sense for satire after the great gesaku masters of the Edo period, with Kanagaki Robun 仮名垣魯文 as their last representative in early Meiji. Rare exceptions like the literary products of the Ken’yūsha coterie and isolated works as Natsume Sōseki’s Yumejūya 夢十夜 (‘Ten Nights’ Dreams,’ 1908) notwithstanding, purely imaginative and fantastical aspects in fiction had been generally suppressed as well during the four decades when verisimilitude and introspection became the domineering values. Until Tsubouchi Shōyō rejected the genre, however, Japan had known a kind of literature that was set in the future (mirai-ki 未来記) and that, albeit in a way very different from Kappa’s, also described imagined social and political systems. Scholar Kyōko Kurita has called these mirai-ki, which flourished especially in the second decade of the Meiji period (1868-1911), ‘futurological novels,’ (as opposed to ‘futuristic novels’) and maintains that they are “clearly extrapolated from present realities and … dialectically concerned with social and political issues.” (2000: 7) Yoshida Sei’ichi (1955: 122) mentions as examples of this type of literature: Sudō Nansui’s 須藤南翠 Shinsō no kajin 新粧の佳人 (1886), Hirotsu Ryūrō’s 広津柳浪 Joshi sansei shinchūrō 女子参政蜃中楼 (1887), Suehiro Tetchō’s末広鉄腸 Nijūsannen miraiki 二十三年未来記 (which he mistakenly ascribes to Fukuchi Ōchi 福地桜痴), and Yano Ryūkei’s 矢野竜渓 Shinshakai 新社会 (1902).

The great difference of this last type of works with Kappa is, of course, that the imaginative political systems in the former are cast in a very positive light, whereas that of the latter is presented as rather bleak and disturbing. Kappaland constitutes such an uninviting society that Susan Napier felt inclined to call Kappa “Japan’s first full-blown dystopian novel.” (1996: 191) The work shares this negative and critical portrayal of a society with another distinctly political genre: proletarian literature. Generally accepted to have been launched with the issuing of the magazine Tane maku hito 種蒔く人 (‘The Sower’) in 1921, by the time of Kappa’s publication in 1927, the proletarian literature movement was gaining ever more strength, to become Japan’s literary world’s dominant group only a few years later. Before I turn to the analysis of the outrageous society of the Kappas, I think it is opportune to have a closer look at Akutagawa’s attitude toward this burgeoning literary movement, as well as toward the relevance of social and political matters to literature.
Akutagawa, politics, and proletarian literature
You attack the present social system, why?
Because I see the evils born of capitalism.
Evils? I didn’t think you discriminated between good and evil. In that case, how about your own life?
– The discussion was with an angel. Impeccable. In a silk hat. …
(Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, A Fool’s Life, 1927)
Though Akutagawa, along with Miyamoto Kenji and other proletarian critics, placed himself squarely into the lower middle class, he was certainly not the petty bourgeois utterly unconcerned with his political and social environment they accused him to be. Critic Satō Tsuguo (2001) tries to retrace a budding political concern in Akutagawa’s college years, arguing that he was much influenced by the upheavals that came with the High Treason Incident (Taigyaku jiken 大逆事件) of 1910, in which a group of twenty-six socialists and anarchists was accused of conspiring to assassinate the emperor, and twelve, among whom Kōtoku Shūsui 幸徳秋水, were executed the following year. As Satō and other scholars demonstrate, Akutagawa more than likely attended the famous speech Muhonron 謀反論 (‘A Vindication of Treason’) that writer Tokutomi Roka 徳冨蘆花 delivered shortly after the incident at the First Higher School where Akutagawa was enrolled. In this speech, Roka fulminated against the actions of the government and maintained that history often proves the ones who are called ‘insurrectionists’ to be the real heroes. Another early indication of Akutagawa’s political and social consciousness is his short story Nikkō shōhin 日光小品 (‘A sketch of sunlight,’ estimated 1911), in which he expressed his sympathy for the humanistic slant of Pyotr Kropotkin’s socialist ideas. To Satō, the impetus for the young Akutagawa to write this work should be sought in Tokutomi Roka’s speech.

Upon the execution of Kōtoku Shūsui and the others, an unremitting repression of all ideologies deemed subversive followed, and the government succeeded in squashing the socialist movement for many years after. Around the end of the First World War, however, when the so-called “rice riots” forced the state to slightly relax its stranglehold, Japanese socialist and anarchist movements quickly awoke from their state of hibernation and seized the opportunity to regroup and launch new magazines (Crump 1998), among which there was one with literary ambitions, Tane maku hito (‘The Sower’). Issued for the first time in February 1921, the magazine is widely considered to be the start of the proletarian literary movement.

This ‘socialist surge’ does not mean, of course, that state repression had ended. In an attempt to more effectively prosecute dissidents and put a halt to the spreading of radical propaganda, a bill called Kageki shakai undō torishimari hōan 過激社会運動取締法案 (‘Radical Social Movements Control Bill’) was proposed in February 1922. (Mitchell 1973: 329-30) That Akutagawa’s political and social concern meanwhile had not waned in the least is clear from his reaction to this bill. In an entry to Chōkōdō zakki 澄江堂雑記 (‘Chōkōdō Scribblings,’ 1918-1924), a collection of notes he published in the course of six years, he expressed his sympathy for the socialists and his resentment toward the government’s tactics in no uncertain terms: “Socialism,” he starts, “is not a question of right or wrong. It simply is a necessity. Even the sight of a fire-walking ascetic could not rouse more astonishment in me than people who do not grasp this necessity. That ‘Radical Social Movements Control Bill’ truly is a good example of this.” (Akutagawa 1922: 97)
Another event that sent major shock waves throughout Japan was the beating to death of anarchist Ōsugi Sakae 大杉栄, his lover and his six-year-old nephew by a military police squad in the confusion following the Great Kantō Earthquake in September 1923. Naturally, this incident did not leave Akutagawa cold too. An entry to his Chōkōdō zakki called “Chaplin” illustrates well how outrageous and absurd he felt the killings were:
All who bears the name of socialist, whether a Bolshevik or not, appears to be considered a threat. Especially at the time of the recent Great Earthquake, many seem to have been cursed this way. But, if we are speaking of socialists, Charlie Chaplin was a socialist too. If we are to persecute socialists, shouldn’t we persecute Chaplin as well, then? Imagine that Chaplin was killed by a military police lieutenant. Imagine that, while doing his duck-walk, all of a sudden he was stabbed to death. No one who has gazed at his figure on the screen could possibly not feel indignant. If we were to project this indignation to the present situation… Anyway, the only thing that is sure is that you, dear reader, are on the black list too. (Akutagawa 1923a: 283)

But Akutagawa’s championing of socialism did not only apply to current politics-related events in Japanese society. He also seemed intent on defending the socialist movement’s literary spin-off: the burgeoning but heavily chastised proletarian literature movement. In ‘Kaizō’ puroretaria bungei no kahi o tou 「改造」プロレタリア文学の可否を問ふ (‘On the Pros and Cons of Kaizō’s Proletarian Literature,’ 1923), a short essay written early that year, he opens as follows: “Literature is not so unrelated to politics as many people suppose. It might more properly be said that the special characteristic of literature is that it can be related even to politics. Proletarian literature, which has finally got underway only recently, has been much too slow in making its appearance.” (Keene 1984: 576) In Akutagawa’s view, it could not be excluded that another Victor Hugo or Rai Sanyō would stand up among the proletarian writers. While he respected the opinions of writers who thought art was for art’s sake, he said he nevertheless thought it worthier to share the joys and grieves of the common people than to congratulate oneself with one’s minutely wrought but vain art. However, Akutagawa’s acclaim for the proletarian writers was not unequivocal. He was at the same time very critical of their fanaticism and black-and-white thinking, and insisted that not all bourgeois people are bad, just as not all proletarians are good. What Akutagawa said he valued most of all was, after all, “the freedom of the mind.” (1923b: 275-76)

Yet despite his approbation, on the whole, of proletarian literature, he in return only became the target of their continuous critique for being a member of an outmoded bourgeois intellectual class. We can hear a slightly bitter tone in Puroretaria bungaku ron プロレタリア文学論 (‘A Discussion of Proletarian Literature’), another short essay on the subject he wrote nearly two years later. “I do not mean to speak evil here of proletarian literature. I want to defend it,” he starts off. “However, as I am generally considered to be a bourgeois writer, probably they will tell me: ‘We don’t need you to defend us.’” (1924: 29) He counters the attacks on his person by arguing that it is absurd to automatically call everyone who is not explicitly proletarian a bourgeois. Just like there is not only black and white, but also red and blue, the world is not merely divided between capitalists and proletarians. He moreover exposes the irony that the practitioners and theorists of proletarian literature rarely came out of the ranks of the working class themselves: “As, in our present society, there exists no proletarian culture,” he says, “… proletarian literature should be considered just another form of literature born out of bourgeois culture.” (1924: 29) He proceeds by giving the example of socialist writer Bernard Shaw, who was leading a life in great luxury in a way he judges far more ‘bourgeois’ than the lifestyles of Japan’s so-called bourgeois writers. (1924: 29-30)

In this same essay, Akutagawa also puts his finger on one of the biggest flaws that is generally mentioned with respect to Japanese proletarian literature; that is, a lack of artistic value. “After all is said and done,” he concludes, “proletarian literature too should be of good quality.” (1924: 31) He strongly argues against the proletarian writers’ belief that for the moment a militant literature was needed to raise the political awareness in the people, so that, as soon as the working class was liberated, a splendid literature could emerge. Good proletarian literature has to be produced now, he insists. But to his frustration, despite all the fuss about proletarian literature for the last three or four years, not one proletarian work has thus far been able to really move him. Therefore, he decides, proletarian literature should be considered a still undeveloped terrain. (1924: 31-33) Perhaps his writing Kappa can be interpreted as his own attempt to make up for this lacuna in Japanese socio-politically inspired literature.

In Shuju no kotoba 侏儒の言葉 (‘Words of the Ignoramus,’1925a), a collection of aphorisms and random jottings he finished about two years before Kappa and which bears many thematic resemblances with it, Akutagawa again criticizes the rigid and unaesthetic approach of hard-core Marxist writers to literature: “Suppose that every single novelist’s depiction of life should be based on Marx’ materialistic view of history. Then likewise every poet’s verses about the sun and the moon, about mountains and rivers, should be founded on a Copernican heliocentric view. However, not to say “the sun goes down in the west,” but instead, “the earth revolves so-and-so many degrees,” is not necessarily aesthetically superior.” (1925a: 85-86)

Akutagawa was of course not a socialist, but neither did he neatly fit the image of the decadent bourgeois intellectual totally disengaged from the very society that proletarian writers and many a scholar of his work upheld. Contrary to numerous other artists and writers of his era who advocated an art for art’s sake devoid of all practical aims, Akutagawa did not exclude the possibility of good political literature. However, the one condition he imposed was that literature, political or not, should always maintain its artistic value. This was exactly the problem of proletarian literature, which was too belligerent, and too focused on liberating the masses, to be overly concerned with the kind of aesthetic principles Akutagawa held sacred. Kappa, which may well have been Akutagawa’s reaction to the continuous critique of his alleged political aloofness, precisely made up for what proletarian literature was lacking: finesse, humor, and, above all, artistic skill. Let us now take a closer look at the work itself.
Social satire in Kappa
There he was, legs straddling wide, peeping through his legs at every car and every single person as they passed. …
‘… Everything seemed so terribly gloomy that I thought I’d have a go at looking at the world the other way up. But it turns out to be just the same, after all.’
(Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Kappa)
Kappa begins with a short ‘Author’s Preface’ describing the visit of the apparent ‘author’ to a mental asylum. There he meets Patient No.23, a man who claims to have stayed several months in the land of the Kappas. In the course of the following seventeen relatively short chapters, the narrator tells us of his many adventures there and his numerous encounters with Kappa individuals. The personages and events that shape his account obviously reflect many stereotypical personalities and an array of social issues that can be traced back to contemporary Japanese society. Nevertheless, critics so far have tended to downplay these elements, focusing rather on the story’s numerous autobiographical aspects. Yoshida Sei’ichi, Akutagawa’s biographer, even went so far as to say that “the world of Kappa relates nothing but his own anguished mind.” (1942: 319)

Perhaps Akutagawa’s famous statement, made in a letter, that “Kappa was born out of my dégôut with respect to everything, especially myself” (Keene 1984: 580) may have formed the root of this rather biased approach. Admittedly, it would be hard not to recognize Akutagawa and his frame of mind in the last months of his life in descriptions of a fear of bad genes, of distressing family relations, of he-Kappas being chased by she-Kappas, of a commandment of the ‘Modernist’ religion saying “live vigorously,” or a fire incident well-covered by insurance. Who would not associate, furthermore, the depressed chain-smoking poet Tok, who kills himself and then, posthumously, makes inquiries about his fame and the well-being of the ones he left behind, with the melancholic and suicidal Akutagawa? Withal, either a fool or an ignoramus would be the critic who missed the resemblance of both the title and the aphoristic content of Kappa Mag’s work Ahō no kotoba 阿呆の言葉 (‘Words of the Fool’) with Akutagawa’s own Shuju no kotoba 侏儒の言葉 (‘Words of the Ignoramus,’1925a) and Aru ahō no isshō 或る阿呆の一生 (‘A Fool’s Life,’ 1927).

All the same, to neglect or trivialize the elements of social satire in Kappa so flagrantly as many critics have done, is to sell the work short and to disregard the author’s own ideas of what a novel should be. In the entry “Confessions” (1923) to Chōkōdō zakki, Akutagawa reveals to us his aversion to the all too candid confessional novels with which the literary scene of the 1920s inundated:
They often tell me ‘to write more about your life and make a bolder confession’. I too make confessions; my stories are confessions of my own experiences to a degree. What they want is for me to make myself the hero of a novel, write of actual events concerning me without reservation, and furthermore attach to the book an identification chart of the names of the characters and the real persons. Let it be clear that I have no intention of writing such a work. Firstly, it disagrees with me no end that I exhibit my private life to those curiosity-seekers. Secondly, it gives me no pleasure to turn such a confession into profit and fame. Let us suppose that I wrote my sexual experiences like Kobayashi Issa and published it in the New Year issue of, say, Chūō kōron. My readers would be thrilled; my critics would shower me with praise: Akutagawa’s great leap forward etc., and my friend would be happy, saying ‘Akutagawa is now naked and truthful,’ etc. Just thinking of it gives me bone-chilling shivers. (Tsuruta 1970: 23-24)

In “‘Watakushi’ shōsetsu ron shōken” 「私」小説論小見 (‘My View on the I-Novel’) he again unequivocally rejects his friend Kume Masao’s 久米正雄 claim that “the true way for prosaic art is the I-novel;” to admit that “a writer cannot express anything unless it already exists inside his mind” (1925b: 24) is about as far as Akutagawa in 1925 would go.

It is true that in the last two years of his life, spurred by the thickening shadow of the death he was doubtlessly foreseeing, Akutagawa wrote works that can positively be defined as autobiographical. Yet we have to agree with Donald Keene that “[e]ven then he was still reluctant to espouse the “I Novel” in the manner of Kume Masao.” (Keene 1984: 575) Moreover, since Kappa is so different from these other late works in its design, intention and content, it would be inapposite to indiscriminately throw all these literary creations into one and the same shady category. The following entry from Shuju no kotoba perhaps captures well how Kappa and its ‘personal aspects’ should be taken:
It is impossible for a person to confess the entirety of himself and it is impossible for him to engage in art without expressing himself. Rousseau was fond of confession but you will not see Rousseau stark naked in his Confessions. Mérimée abhorred confessions, but does not his Colomba reveal Mérimée between its lines? The borderline between literature of confession and others is not so clear as on might suppose. (Tsuruta 1970: 22)

As Kappa, which was intended neither as pure autobiography nor as undiluted fiction, belongs to the immense gray zone in between these two poles, it becomes all the more difficult and ultimately pointless to grope for that exceedingly hazy ‘borderline.’ This stated, for the remaining part of this paper, I will consider Kappa’s many elements of satire and parody, which are constructed mainly through inversions and distortions of Japan’s social and political reality.

From the initial descriptions of the Kappas’ appearance and practices, we learn that they wear no clothes at all, and are conversely amused at us, humans’, need to cover our nakedness. “The most puzzling of all,” says the bewildered narrator, “was the confusing Kappa way of getting everything upside down: where we humans take a thing seriously, the Kappa will tend to be amused; and, similarly, what we humans find amusing the Kappa will take in deadly earnest.” (Bownas 1970: 60) An extreme instance of inversion is the fact that, unlike humans, Kappa children are born as a result of their free will. When a child is about to be born, the father puts his mouth to the mother’s vagina and ascertains if it really wishes to enter this world. If not, the infant is aborted immediately. (61-62)

The first distinctly social issue that comes under Akutagawa’s satirical attack is the family system that is so typical for Japan. In Kappa, the family is portrayed literally as a burden: “[A] Kappa, who was still quite young was staggering along the street, gasping desperately for breath; draped round his neck were seven or eight Kappas, including two who looked like his mother and father.” (66) As Akutagawa had experienced himself, the many responsibilities that the social institution of the family entails can cause a lot of distress for an individual. According to Tok the poet, Akutagawa’s principal alter ego throughout the novella, “the family system was absurd beyond belief,” as “parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters – all spend their time indulging their sole pleasure, that of making life burdensome for each other.” (66)

The family even meddles in the love affairs of young Kappas, which at once brings us to the strange way courtship is practiced in Kappaland. There, it is the female Kappa who aggressively pursues the object of her lust. (70) However, before the reader thinks of the he-Kappa as fortunate, it should be added that a ‘kiss’ of a she-Kappa involves the risk of getting a ‘rotten beak,’ (71) an unmistakable allusion to the venereal diseases which were a widespread phenomenon in Taishō Japan. In their wanton chase, furthermore, she-Kappas are sometimes assisted by their families – an disguised critique, perhaps, of the Japanese omiai kekkon お見合い結婚, or arranged marriages, which still were the norm in late Taishō, ealy Shōwa Japan. In such marriages, it often was the family rather than the young candidates themselves who had the last word. Tellingly, also, Tok the poet was an advocate and practitioner of ‘free love.’ (65)

The inversion of gender patterns is not restricted the realm of love affairs, but is a consistent theme throughout the novella. So it is that in the Kappa-universe, God created the female Kappa first, and then, to dispel her tedium, “took her brain and made of it the male Kappa.” (122) Brainlessness certainly does not mean powerlessness, however. That wives are the masters of households – as is the case with Gael the magnate (89) and the elder Kappa of the Great Tabernacle (124) – might not surprise us so much, but what is more likely to do so is that a she-Kappa (again Gael’s spouse) is secretly in control of the Cabinet and, therefore, of the country (89). A she-Kappa, scheming to poison her husband but accidentally killing a prominent Otter of the neighboring country, even ends up starting a massive war. (90-91) But despite their pervasive authority, the overall picture that Akutagawa puts up of the female sex is not very positive: “looking quite out of [their] mind, [she-Kappas dash] pell-mell after the male (70);” they are seductive and alluring, but at the same time deceitful and crooked enough to concoct evil plots and have innocent he-Kappas killed (72); and they are said to be “more prone to jealousy than their male counterparts” (74). Even more importantly, save for the wife of the church’s elder, they are not given a voice throughout the novella, as it are always the males who do the talking. In précis, despite his ‘empowering’ of female Kappas in a sense, in the end we cannot say that Akutagawa is making the case for feminism.

Remarkably, artists do not escape becoming the target of Akutagawa’s lampoons either. On the contrary, just as he himself had been reviled by the advocates of proletarian literature for his “affectedness” and “decadence,” these same traits in the Kappa intelligentsia, and especially in the artists of the ‘super-Kappa-club,’ an art-for-art’s-sake circle, are what attracts some of Akutagawa’s most cutting satire. A detail that illustrates the affectedness of ‘cultured Kappas’ are the programs used at their music concerts, which “like ours in Japan are usually larded with a lot of German.” (76) Under the bright lights of the super-Kappa-club’s salon, which is attended by “poets, novelists, playwrights, critics, painters, composers, sculptors, as well as a fair number of amateur dabblers (67),” extreme decadence rules. Examples of their limitless debauchery are a sculptor publicly engaging in homosexual activities with a young Kappa, and a woman Kappa novelist standing on a table and gulping down as much as sixty bottles of absinth, to drop dead on the spot eventually. (67-68) By means of this kind of outrageous satire, Akutagawa obviously distanced himself from the image of the affected and decadent bourgeois intellectual that perpetually haunted him. Thus, Akutagawa’s grotesque caricature of exactly the same old traits the proletarian writers and critics attributed to himself, might be explained as his purposive undercutting of the argumentation used against him.

A satirical criticism that was also closely related to the practical concerns of the proletarian literary movement, was the one aimed at tyrannical censorship. In Kappa, a classical concert is suddenly interrupted by a policeman, which provokes the audience to vehemently oppose with shouting and the throwing of objects. (77-78) Mag, the philosopher among the Kappas, explains that painting and writing, because its message is supposed to be readily understood, is not subject to censorship. Music, however, only means anything to Kappas with “an ear for music,” and is therefore considered potentially subversive. That, says Mag, is why there is a prohibition on performance. Censorship, in other words, is exercised for the one and only reason that the authorities do not understand what it is about. Mag’s final comments directly attack the Japanese situation. When the narrator is appalled at so much political tyranny in Kappaland, Mag answers: “[O]urs is a much more progressive censorship than you find anywhere else! Look at Japan, for instance. There, only a month or so back, there was another instance of…” At this point, his speech suddenly breaks of because his head is hit by a flying bottle. (79-80) In short, it is implied that however oppressive and absurd the censorship of Kappaland may be, the situation is still better than that of Japan. In fact, it was not without reason that Mag (and Akutagawa) complained about Japanese censorship. Publication laws were very strict in pre-war Japan, and writings with sexual, religious, and especially political content were subject to rigorous scrutiny. In 1924, the Home Ministry had created a Publications Monitoring Department, which had separate sections for censorship, investigation and general affairs. Also, with the enactment of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, the polity had obtained a new effective instrument to suppress political movements as socialism, communism and anarchism. (Mitchell 1973: 335-42; and Crump 1998) The incident of “only a month or so back” Mag refers to may have been the ban of the posthumous publication of female anarchist Kaneko Fumiko’s 金子文子 poems in January 1927. (Nihon anakizumu undō jinmei jiten 2004)

Revealingly, the bulk of Kappa’s satire was reserved for diverse themes related to capitalism and the predicament of the proletariat. The most important representative of the capitalist class was the Kappa Gael, called “the capitalist to end all capitalists.” (81) In not very flattering terms, the narrator says of him that “not even in this land of fat paunches was there one that sagged and bellied out quite as disgustingly as Gael’s.” (81) He lives in the utmost luxury, using golden spoons, and dwelling in a residence where every room, and even the furniture, is gold-rimmed. (86-87) Ironically described as a cordial fellow at first, it soon will become clear that this Kappa is a businessman of the most ruthless sort.

Gael gives the narrator introductions to various factories. In those he is faced with the rapidly proceeding automation that is taking place in Kappaland. Each month, for example, as much as seven or eight hundred new kinds of machines are being invented. (82-83) This clearly is an allusion to the booming mass production and consumption that characterized 1920s Japan. An interesting and thought-provoking case of mass production in Kappaland is the way books are manufactured. All that is needed, it is said, is paper, ink and a grey-looking powder, which is soon revealed to be ass-brain. These ingredients are poured into a funnel-mouthed machine, to be, in only a few seconds, “ejected as octavos, duodecimos, royal octavos and so on.” (82) It is left to the reader’s imagination what the quality and intellectual level of these books made up of ‘ass-brain’ must have been. Music and paintings, moreover, are produced in a similar fashion. Here, Akutagawa is obviously satirizing the tendency in 1920s Japan to commodify art and literature, a trend epitomized by the enpon 円本, literary collections sold at only one yen a volume. By using the ‘ass-brain’ metaphor, Akutagawa is evidently pointing to the danger of diminished quality that lies in the commodification of art.

Another consequence of this rashly proceeding automation is that constantly, huge amounts of Kappa labor force become redundant. We are told that at least fourteen, fifteen thousand laborers are being dismissed every month. Nevertheless, there are no strikes in Kappaland. Instead – and this is perhaps the most grotesque satire of the whole novella – redundant laborers are gassed, whereupon their flesh is used as meat. (83) That Akutagawa should reserve his most biting satire to criticize the situation of the proletariat shows once more how wrong his critics were when condemning his purported aloofness. Though of course not in the extreme degree as in Kappaland, in real Japan too, worker’s rights were very limited. All workers’ organizations and strikes had been outlawed by The Public Peace Police Law of 1900, and were even further restricted by the Peace Preservation Law of 1925. (Crump 1998) In Kappaland, there is the inversion, as it were, of the concept of workers’ rights. Our narrator, asking if the workers do not protest against their horrible fate, is answered by a character called Judge Pep: “It wouldn’t make any difference, however much trouble they made. You see, we have a statute covering the butchery of the worker [shokkō tosatsu hō 職工屠殺法].” (84) When the narrator, aghast, goes on expressing his strong disagreement to these practices, he is countered: “Tell me, isn’t it true that, in your country, the daughters of the fourth class are sold into prostitution? If this is so – and you’re bound to admit it is – then it’s sheer sentimentality on your part to get hot under the collar about something as trifling as eating workmen’s flesh as meat!” (84) Again, Akutagawa sarcastically exposes the flaws of Japanese society by suggesting that, in the end, it is no better than Kappaland.

The political world does not escape Akutagawa’s satire either. Not only are politicians in Kappaland not honest, but they are not even expected to be. The narrator points to the untruthfulness of a “distinguished statesman’s” public utterances, but is silenced by the dubious rhetoric of Gael the capitalist: “[E]veryone realizes that they are lies, so, in the end, it no doubt boils down to the same thing as the truth.” (87) The politicians, however, are not at the core of the problem, as they appear to be mere puppets whose strings are ultimately pulled by capitalists, or, more precisely, the wives of capitalists. The power hierarchy in Kappaland is most unusual. The Cabinet, we learn, is controlled by a “socialist” newspaper. However – and this is the purest irony – this “socialist” newspaper is itself also under the control of Gael, the biggest capitalist in the country. (87-88) In short, political parties and the press are just marionettes in the hands of capitalists, used to exert power over the working class. To emphasize their instrumentality, the names of political parties and newspapers consist of mere interjections with no meaning. (88)

It was mentioned earlier that there had been a war between the Kappas and their neighboring country, inhabited by the Otters. No less than 369,500 Kappas had lost their lives in that conflict. Gael seems fatalistic when he says: there will be war “as long as we have neighbours.” (89) The truth is, however, that this tycoon had shamelessly gained profit out the war, supplying coal cinders as food for the troops. This was no problem, Gael remarks, since “as long as our bellies are empty, we Kappas will get our teeth into anything under the sun.” (91) The narrator notes that this sort of thing would surely cause a scandal in Japan, but is again riposted with the most outrageous type of twisted rhetoric: “Here, too. Scandal and no mistake! But as long as I myself concede the fact of scandal, no one makes an issue out of it.” (91) No wonder, as he is in control of both the press and the political world.

The penal system of Kappaland is characterized by absurd laws, and knows the death penalty too, but again, Japanese legislation is presented as nothing better, or even worse, than Kappa law. When asked if there exists capital punishment in Japan as well, the narrator reluctantly admits that they have hanging, but then exclaims: “I suppose you’re going to tell me that capital punishment in this country is far more enlightened than it is in Japan!” The Kappa judge Pep answers: “Naturally, far more enlightened.” (108)

Obviously, Kappa was not born out of Akutagawa’s dégôut with himself alone, but, as he said, with everything. The last topic of Kappa I will touch upon here, religion, was described by Akutagawa in words dripping with cynicism. The prevalent creed of the Kappas is Modernism, also called Viverism. Ironically, despite the name Viverism and its adage ‘live life vigorously,’ the saints of this religion are all suicidal, insane, or die untimely. (119-22) The aged priest of the Great Tabernacle, moreover, admits that he does not believe in the ‘Tree of Life,’ their main object of worship. (124) Whether social, political, or religious, virtually no institution was spared from Akutagawa’s acerbic pen.

In the last years of his short life, Akutagawa’s physical and mental health was rapidly deteriorating. In Shuju no kotoba he called life “more hellish than hell itself” (1925a: 34), and in a letter he wrote on October 29, 1926, a little bit over three months before Kappa, he wrote: “My head feels so weird. … [E]ven the most futile matter … causes me to sink, inevitably, into a state of melancholy. When I ask myself how many New Years I will be able to welcome hereafter, I feel wretched beyond description.” (Ishizaki 1990: 339-40) Yet despite his mental agonies, within half a year from his suicide on July 24, 1927, he surprisingly still found the time and the energy to produce a work that is so concerned with the various problems that existed in Japanese society. Considering his anguish, which caused him to “subsist on opium extracts, strychnine, laxatives, and Veronal,” (Ishizaki 1990: 340) one cannot but marvel that he managed to write a ravishing work so full of scintillating satire as Kappa. Writing Kappa, however, appears to have been quite engaging to him. He said he wrote it with “a speed he had not known lately” (Yoshida 1955: 124), and revealed that after he had “finished the 106-page-manuscript of Kappa, [he felt] a little relieved.” (Yoshida 1955: 124)

Yet, as I explained earlier, his effort has not always been recognized justly. Seiji Lippit eloquently summarizes how Akutagawa’s literary work and his untimely death were perceived by the advocates of proletarian literature and the Japanese literary world in general:
A number of writers and critics … interpreted his death as marking the defeat of an intellectual (or aestheticized) literary practice disengaged from historical and social reality. This point was particularly emphasized by several prominent Marxist critics, who read his personal crisis as “one aspect of a collapsing bourgeoisie.” Miyamoto Kenji crystallized this sentiment in his landmark 1929 essay, “Haiboku no bungaku” (The Literature of Defeat), in which he wrote that Akutagawa’s late writings and death constituted a warning to bourgeois intellectuals of the inevitable and disastrous results of their aestheticism and hermeticism. (Lippit 1999: 27)

I hope that this paper has sufficiently shown that this kind of assessment of Akutagawa and his work is not exactly fair. Akutagawa was in fact not at all indifferent to the socio-political events that took place around him, and neither was he a diehard aesthete totally against the idea of engaged literature. On the contrary, with the essayistic jottings of Chōkōdō zakki, Shuju no kotoba, and Aru ahō no isshō, and especially with Kappa, he demonstrated that he himself was capable of producing literature that, albeit humorous and aesthetically pleasing, was also of a political nature.


Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介. “Hiwatari no gyōja” 火渡りの行者. Orig. pub. in 1922; repr. in vol.9 of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū 芥川龍之介全集. Iwanami Shoten, 1996, p.97.
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介. “Chapurin” チャプリン. Orig. pub. in 1923; repr. in vol.10 of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū 芥川龍之介全集. Iwanami Shoten, 1996, p.283.
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介. “‘Kaizō’ puroretaria bungei no kahi o tou” 「改造」プロレタリア文芸の可否を問ふ. Orig. pub. in Kaizō 改造 (February 1923); repr. in vol.9 of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū 芥川龍之介全集. Iwanami Shoten, 1996, pp.275-77.
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介. “Puroretaria bungaku ron” プロレタリア文学論. Orig. pub. in Akita sakigake shinpō 秋田魁新報 (November 1924); repr. in vol.12 of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū 芥川龍之介全集. Iwanami Shoten, 1996, pp.29-33.
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介. “Shuju no kotoba” 侏儒の言葉. Orig. pub. in Bungei shunjū 文芸春秋 (January 1923 – February 1925); repr. in Shuju no kotoba / Saihō no hito 侏儒の言葉・西方の人. Shinchōsha, 1995.
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介. “‘Watakushi’ shōsetsu ron shōken” 「私」小説論小見. Orig. pub. in Shinchō (November 1925); repr. in vol.13 of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū 芥川龍之介全集. Iwanami Shoten, 1996, pp.20-26.
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介. “Kappa” 河童. Orig. pub. in Kaizō 改造 (March 1927); repr. in Kappa, hoka nihen 河童 他二篇. Iwanami Shoten, 2003.
Geoffrey Bownas, trans. Kappa, by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1970.
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Ishizaki Hitoshi 石崎等. “Yuganda jigazō: “Kappa” shiron.” ゆがんだ自画像:『河童』試論. In Sakkaron: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 作家論:芥川龍之介. Sōbunsha shuppan, 1990.
Donald Keene. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.
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Nihon anakizumu undō jinmei jiten 2004
“Kaneko Fumiko” 金子文子. Nihon anakizumu undō jinmei jiten 日本アナキズム運動人名事典, 2004. [Online] Available at:
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Anonymous said...

Bravo, Leopold.
You've done a magnificant job historicizing this frequently misread text.


Anonymous said...


-Megumi Yamagishi

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-Cody Gordon

Ace Winstone said...


Is this your blog or a forum for pseudoman contributors? We want to see your original works, you Balkan hillbilly. If you find my tone superior, it's because I'm American and you're Greek. Bitch.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this insightful read:)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, very good work

Anonymous said...

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