To Japanese

Brief Introduction to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Hagiography of San Kirishitohoro”

By the Translator



As the author mentioned in an essay, “About two peculiar works” in January 1926 [1], this novel, first published in 1918, in the March and May issues of Shin-shosetsu [2] is a half-fiction, written on the basis of the hagiography of Reprobus, Christened as St Christopher, imitating the writing style of Aesop Fables which had been introduced into Japan at the late 16th century and became popular during the Edo period.


In the small Introduction in “The Hagiography of San Kirishitohoro”, the author wrote, “Although the story included a number of errors for both ages and places, I refrained from correcting them in order not to spoil the age-colour of the original text”, as if an original book had existed, but it was a camouflage.


It is uncertain which the source hagiography of St Christopher the author referred to was, but it was allegedly the Legend Aurea which was printed in the fifteenth century by compiling old hagiographies written in Latin by Jacobus de Voragine (1230 –1298 AD) or its English translation. [3] The fact that “The Hagiography of San Kirishitohoro” is full of Akutagawa’s imagination is evident when compared with the Legenda Aurea.


In fact, the novel included some passages that did not exist in the legend. First of all, the king whom Reprobus served was not the King of Antiochia but the King of Canaan. The passage in which Reprobus joined the battle against the neighbouring country was a fiction, and the scene of the battle might have been the imitation “the description Goliath, a giant Philistine warrior” in “Book of Samuel 1, Chapter 17”, as it was actually quoted in the same passage. Secondly, the passage in which Reprobus flew in the air with the devil from Antiochia to the desert might have been inspired by that in the Goethe’s “Faust” in which Doktor Faust did a flight with Mephistopheles. According to the Legenda Aurea, after that, St. Christopher went to the heathen country of Lycia to spread the Christian teachings, and was finally tortured and martyred there. The episode of an old hermit seduced by a courtesan, which did not exist in the original legend either, might have been adopted from “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”. Ryusaga, at which Reprobus serves as a ferryman, may remind one of the river which flows through Lhasa, Tibet, but the river in the Legenda Aurea must be somewhere around the Near East.


As the example of “fictions within fictions”, the followings are found. First, the description of the battle of Antiochian armies against those of a neighbouring country, with banners and the sounds of shell trumpets and other intrument, resembles the one in the Battling Age in Japan. The description of the old recluse tempted by the courtesan is reminiscent of the red-light districts that had existed in the past in Japan. In detail, the Namban steel and vinho tinto (red wine), both imported during the Portuguese Era, and the Japanese men’s uniform made of linen appear. The chickadees which nestled in the vine-like hair of the Reprobus was an “accessory", but it also had a role to play in the composition of the novel.


The passage of crossing the river with Christ on his shoulder is almost the same as in the original hagiography. After the incident, according to the original book, St. Christopher went to the heathen country of Lycia to spread the Christian teachings, and was ultimately tortured and martyred, but this part was omitted in “The Hagiography of San Kirishitohoro”. It would have been a jest of Akutagawa that such Buddhist terms as Shonin (上人), Sutra (經文) and Shingon (眞言) were used for Saint, Holy books and Magic spells, respectively.


Apart from the stylistic matters, many vocabularies that are rarely used today are seen abundant in this novel, implying that the readers of that age had a high level proficiency for the Japanese language.


In terms of the interest of the tale, this novel may well be ranked high among the works of Akutagawa.


The late 16th century, when the Tale of Isoho (Aesop Fables), the writing style of which this novel had imitated, corresponds to the Elizabethan Era in England. To express the mood of this novel, the adoption of Elizabethan English or some dialect of that era would have been better, but the translation was made into present-day English, as it was beyond my capacity.


The translator acknowledges Kanano, his granddaughter, for editing the text of this novel translated into English.


The copy of Shin-shosetsu, March and May issues, in which this novel first appeared, has been obtained by courtesy of Nihon Kindai Bungakukan (The Museum of Modern Japanese Literature).


December 2020



[1] “Bunsho Ourai (文章往來)”, Shunyo-do Publishing (春陽堂), January 1926, p.15.

[2] “Shin-shosetsu (新小説)”, Shunyo-do Publishing (春陽堂), 1919, March Issue p.2-11, May Issue p.1-8.

[3] Jacobus de Voragine, Translated into English by William Caxton 1483, “The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea).”