To Japanese

Brief Introduction to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Smiles of Gods”

By the Translator



The period from the Taisho to the early Showa Era (1910-1940s) was a golden age of Japanese literature, when prominent writers, such as Takeo Arishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Atsushi Nakajima, Osamu Dazai, et al. had made efforts to enhance the concept of novels from mere reading matter to art. They were elites who read literature in the highest education organs and were familiar with ancient and modern literature of Europe, Asia and Japan. Ryunosuke Akutagawa himself, born in 1892, had graduated from the Department of Literature, Tokyo Imperial University, in 1916.


Unlike today’s pop-writers who produce million sellers whatever their literary value, they struggled to explore their own genre and establish their own style, and many of them died young in their thirties to forties by intemperance or suicide. Akutagawa killed himself in 1927 at the age of thirty-five by an overdose of barbital.[1] In my personal view, the last writer who inherited such a tradition was Yukio Mishima who ended his life in 1970, dramatically by harakiri, although the reason of his suicide was not the anguish in literature. Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel Laureate who was brought up and educated in England cannot be counted among Japanese writers, even though he was born in Japan to Japanese parents.


Within the thirteen-year period as a writer, Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) wrote almost 400 novels, which included about 12 short and long ones classified into Kirishitan-Series. Whilst most of the other works in the same category (including “The death of a disciple (1918)” and “The legend of St. Christophorus (1919)” which were mentioned about in my 2019 Christmas story) had told of the life and event of saints and followers of either Western or Eastern origins, “The smiles of gods” was a unique novel in which a Portuguese Father and an old man (the disguise of a Japanese spirit) debated on the difference between the Christian God and Japanese deities, with a number of citations from the Bible and other Christian books, Greek Myths, ancient Japanese chronicles, Buddhist sutras, etc. I could not but admire the talent of the reputed genius who read numerous books of European, Chinese and old Japanese books in original languages. “The smiles of gods” which I read in a rather recent year was the most difficult novel to read among Akutagawa’s novels.


This novel was first issued in January 1922 in “New Novels (新小説)” Vol. 27, No. 1, from the Shunyo-do Publishing Co. (春陽堂). After then, it was republished in May next year in “Shunpuku (春服)” from the same publisher together with 14 other works of the same writer, and in June 1935 in “The collected works of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介全集), Vol. 4” from the Iwanami Publishing Co.[2], but the contents of the version in those collected-editions were not the same as those of the original version. Firstly, the title was changed from “The smiles of gods ( 神々の微笑)” to “The smile of “god-god (神神の微笑).” Secondly, the 4th chapter of nearly two thousand letters among 5 chapters in the original version was omitted in the collected-editions. It is certain that these changes were made according either to the writer’s instruction or to the suggestion of some other person, but what were the reasons?


As to the title, they would have thought that “god-god (神神)” was better to represent various kinds of deities rather than the simple plural of “gods (神々)”. The omission of the 4th chapter would have been done because the chapter was thought to be too difficult for readers who lacked prior knowledge.


Another difference was that rubies (phonetic guides) were put on all Chinese characters and phrases in the collected-editions, whereas the rubying was limited to a small number of phrases in the original version.[3]


In the age when this novel was published, reading books was a major pastime of people, as the broadcast of radio, not to mention television, was yet to be started[4], and they were always looking forward to the publishing of new works by Akutagawa and other writers, as I heard from the elders who were students at that time. Being able to digest such difficult novels to a significant extent, they must have possessed high culture and strong thirst for knowledge far better than the present generation. Of course, I am not the exception. Honestly speaking I was only able to understand the details by surveying the citations and difficult phrases in the Internet, which is fortunately available today, and referring books and documents.


To be presented herewith is the text of the original edition, published in 1922, the copy of which obtained by courtesy of The Tokyo Metropolitan University Library, changing the text direction from the traditional vertical to the modern horizontal (or from top-to-bottom to left-to-right) manner. The chapters which were separated by “X” in the original text have been numbered as (1), (2), (3), (4), and (5). The chapter which was not included in the collected-editions was (4). Several typographical errors have been corrected but the punctuations have been kept as they were. Some specific Chinese fonts found in the original text have been replaced with standard fonts. Rubies have been put not on all but a limited number of Chinese characters and phrases. The results of the study on the citations and difficult phrases have been added in the footnotes.


Which version of Bible Akutagawa had read is uncertain, but judging from the fact that most of his Kirishitan-series novels, including “The Smiles of the Gods,” were written in the late 1910s to the early 1920s, it was presumably the “Bungo-yaku Seisho (Literary style Bible, published 5th October 1917) or the earlier “Meiji Bible”, if it was the Japanese version, or an English or German Bible. In this translation, the KJV Bible has been mainly referred.


As to the English translation, I have made a new translation myself, although two previous works[5];[6] were found. I had no intention to challenge the English-natives’ achievements but I thought I had an advantage in reading the classic style Japanese text and interpreting what the author had really meant.




The translator deeply thanks Prof. Malcolm Mackley who has kindly edited the English text translated by the translator. Thanks are also due to other friends who kindly gave useful comments and suggestions on the draft.


(October 2020, Masatoshi Iguchi)



[1] It is hard to understand for the present translator how Akutagawa went to that direction, because in a short essay published only a year and a half ago*), he had written that he was confident of his erudition and talent and that his future is boundless and promising.

    *)芥川龍之介,『風變りな作品二點に就て』,春陽堂,大正十五年一月発行 (Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “About two peculiar works”, Bunshou Ourai, Shunyo-do Publishing, January 2015).

[2] After the National Language Simplification Act was executed after the World War II, this novel was published in New Kanjis and Kanas from the Iwanami Publishing and Chikuma-shobo Companies.

[3] 羅面琴(rabeica), 泥宇須(deus), 御主(on-aruji), 金雀花(enishida), 隱って(komotte), 大日孁貴(Oohirumemuchi), 彦星(Hikoboshi), 棚機津女(Tanabatatsume), 臥亞(Goa). Only 9 cases.,

[4] JOAK Radio Broadcast commenced in 1925 in Japan.

[5] Yoshiko and Andrew Dykstra, “Smiles of the Gods (in “Kirishitan Stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: Introduction and Translation)”, Japanese Religions, Vol. 31 (1), 2006, NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions, Kyoto. pp. 23-65.

[6] Anthony Perrin, “The Smile of the Gods”, in: An archive of Anthony Perrin's 2014 attempt to translate one short story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke per week, January 5, 2015.