30 pages 1 hour read

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1915

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Rashōmon”

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story, “Rashōmon,” originally published in 1916, is a fictional story that details a man on the brink of death who must decide between maintaining his morals and dying or becoming a thief to save his own life. “Rashōmon” sets about to tackle themes of poverty, morality, and survival. Akutagawa is a renowned Japanese author who has been widely named the “father of Japanese short stories.” In addition, Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, was named after him. Akutagawa uses the unnamed characters in “Rashōmon” to interrogate ideas of poverty, morality, and moral corruption.

This guide refers to the version of “Rashōmon” in the 2006 Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, translated from Japanese to English by Jay Rubin.

The protagonist, a former servant of a samurai, stands alone under the Rashōmon, a destroyed gate at the southern entrance into the city of Kyoto, waiting for the rain to stop. The story takes place after dark: It is cold and the wind howls through the deserted gate. The narration reflects on the state of the city of Kyoto, which has been ravaged by calamities, earthquakes, whirlwinds, and fires. The gate is likewise dilapidated. Broken pieces of Buddhist images and rusty objects are heaped in a pile on the roadside. Wild animals make their homes at the gate, though the gate is currently deserted; a cricket is the only creature around.

The narrator describes the flocks of crows who circle the gate during the day. At present, there isn’t a crow in sight, but their droppings are visible on the crumbling stone steps. The narrator returns to the servant, who is drawn to a pimple on his right cheek. The man has recently been discharged from service due to the devastation of the city. The servant would usually return to the samurai’s household once the rain stopped, but now he has nowhere to go. He begins to face hopeless thoughts of his fate. With no other source of income, the former servant of the samurai is faced with a moral decision. In order to survive, he must become a thief; if he does not, he will starve. Though he is aware of this, he feels he lacks the “courage” to betray his morals.

Torn on what to do, the servant decides to find temporary shelter, so he climbs up the stairs leading to the tower above the gate. Halfway up the stairs, the servant sees movement and pauses. He assumed that there would be no living people in the tower, but he spots light, indicating the presence of another person. The light shines faintly on his right cheek, where the festering pimple is visible. As he makes his way to the top, he notices a fire. Terrified, he crouches down and quietly peers into the tower. 

From his place, he spots several corpses of varying gender on the floor, some naked and others clothed. Among the corpses, he spots an old woman standing with a torch, plucking the hairs from the dead. His initial feelings of fear quickly turn into hatred. He rebukes this seemingly evil act, deciding immediately that he would rather die than become a thief and forgetting his own deliberation, which occurred just a little earlier. Spurred by anger, he pulls out his sword and jumps out, shouting at the old woman. Startled and terrified, she tries to flee, but the servant grabs her wrist, twists it, and forces her to the ground amongst the corpses. He demands the old woman tell him what she is doing. The old woman does not speak when he threatens her, and the servant realizes that her fate is in his hands. He softens his approach and asks her again, promising not to turn her in.

The old woman explains that she uses the hairs of the dead to make wigs to sell. She admits that she knows her actions are wrong, but she points out that the dead woman from whom she was pulling the hair used to sell men dried snake, telling them it was fish. She claims that the dead woman hadn’t done anything wrong because she would have died from starvation otherwise. The old woman says that it’s the same for her: If she doesn’t steal hair from the dead to sell wigs, she, too, will die. She claims that the dead woman would understand her situation.

The servant considers this, toying with the pimple on his cheek. He begins to feel the “courage” that he lacked before, and declares that, if this is the case, the old woman ought to understand that he must steal her clothes to keep from starving. He proceeds to do exactly that, stealing the robe off of her body. He flees, and the old woman is left naked at the top of the Rashōmon. She gets up and crawls to the top of the stairs, where she looks down the steps after the man. The old woman is left staring at the last visible stepping stone into darkness.