[Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, (1 March 1892 – 24 July
1927) was a Japanese writer. He is considered the "Father of the Japanese
short story". He committed suicide at the age of 35.]
Author's Name: AKUTAGAWA RYŪNOSUKE
[The "Rashoømon" was the
largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was 106 feet wide and
26feet deep, and was topped with a ridge−pole; its stone−wall rose 75 feet
high. This gate was constructed in789 when the then capital of Japan was
transferred to Kyoto. With the decline of West Kyoto, the gate fellinto bad
repair, cracking and crumbling in many places, and became a hide−out for
thieves and robbers and aplace for abandoning unclaimed corpses.]
It was a chilly evening. A servant
of a samurai stood under the Rashoømon, waiting for a break in the rain.No one
else was under the wide gate. On the thick column, its crimson lacquer rubbed
off here and there,perched a cricket. Since the Rashoømon stands on Sujaku
Avenue, a few other people at least, in sedge hat ornobleman's headgear, might
have been expected to be waiting there for a break in the rain storm. But no
onewas near except this man.
For the past few years the city of
Kyoøto had been visited by a series of calamities, earthquakes, whirlwinds,and
fires, and Kyoøto had been greatly devastated. Old chronicles say that broken
pieces of Buddhist imagesand other Buddhist objects, with their lacquer, gold,
or silver leaf worn off, were heaped up on roadsides to besold as firewood.
Such being the state of affairs in Kyoøto, the repair of the Rashoømon was out
of thequestion. Taking advantage of the devastation, foxes and other wild
animals made their dens in the ruins ofthe gate, and thieves and robbers found
a home there too. Eventually it became customary to bring unclaimedcorpses to
this gate and abandon them. After dark it was so ghostly that no one dared
Flocks of crows flew in from
somewhere. During the daytime these cawing birds circled round the ridgepoleof
the gate. When the sky overhead turned red in the after light of the departed
sun, they looked like so manygrains of sesame flung across the gate. But on
that day not a crow was to be seen, perhaps because of thelateness of the hour.
Here and there the stone steps, beginning to crumble, and with rank grass
growing intheir crevices, were dotted with the white droppings of crows. The
servant, in a worn blue kimono, sat on theseventh and highest step, vacantly
watching the rain. His attention was drawn to a large pimple irritating
hisright cheek.As has been said, the servant was waiting for a break in the
rain. But he had no particular idea of what to doafter the rain stopped.
Ordinarily, of course, he would have returned to his master's house, but he had
beendischarged just before. The prosperity of the city of Kyoøto had been
rapidly declining, and he had beendismissed by his master, whom he had served
many years, because of the effects of this decline. Thus,confined by the rain,
he was at a loss to know where to go. And the weather had not a little to do
with hisdepressed mood. The rain seemed unlikely to stop. He was lost in
thoughts of how to make his livingtomorrow, helpless incoherent thoughts
protesting an inexorable fate. Aimlessly he had been listening to thepattering
of the rain on the Sujaku Avenue.
The rain, enveloping the Rashoømon,
gathered strength and came down with a pelting sound that could beheard far
away. Looking up, he saw a fat black cloud impale itself on the tips of the
tiles jutting out from theroof of the gate.He had little choice of means,
whether fair or foul, because of his helpless circumstances. If he chose
honestmeans, he would undoubtedly starve to death beside the wall or in the
Sujaku gutter. He would be brought tothis gate and thrown away like a stray
dog. If he decided to steal... His mind, after making the same detourtime and
again, came finally to the conclusion that he would be a thief.But doubts
returned many times. Though determined that he had no choice, he was still
unable to musterenough courage to justify the conclusion that he must become a
thief.After a loud fit of sneezing he got up slowly. The evening chill of
Kyoøto made him long for the warmth of abrazier. The wind in the evening dusk
howled through the columns of the gate. The cricket which had beenperched on
the crimsonlacquered column was already gone.Ducking his neck, he looked around
the gate, and drew up the shoulders of the blue kimono which he woreover his
thin underwear. He decided to spend the night there, if he could find a
secluded corner sheltered fromwind and rain. He found a broad lacquered
stairway leading to the tower over the gate. No one would be there,except the
dead, if there were any. So, taking care that the sword at his side did not
slip out of the scabbard, heset foot on the lowest step of the stairs.
A few seconds later, halfway up the
stairs, he saw a movement above. Holding his breath and huddlingcat−like in the
middle of the broad stairs leading to the tower, he watched and waited. A light
coming fromthe upper part of the tower shone faintly upon his right cheek. It
was the cheek with the red, festering pimplevisible under his stubbly whiskers.
He had expected only dead people inside the tower, but he had only goneup a few
steps before he noticed a fire above, about which someone was moving. He saw a
dull, yellow,flickering light which made the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling
glow in a ghostly way. What sort of personwould be making a light in the
Rashoømon... and in a storm? The unknown, the evil terrified him.
As quietly as a lizard, the servant
crept up to the top of the steep stairs. Crouching on all fours, and
stretchinghis neck as far as possible, he timidly peeped into the tower.As
rumor had said, he found several corpses strewn carelessly about the floor.
Since the glow of the light wasfeeble, he could not count the number. He could
only see that some were naked and others clothed. Some ofthem were women, and
all were lolling on the floor with their mouths open or their arms outstretched
showingno more signs of life than so many clay dolls. One would doubt that they
had ever been alive, so eternallysilent they were. Their shoulders, breasts,
and torsos stood out in the dim light; other parts vanished inshadow. The
offensive smell of these decomposed corpses brought his hand to his nose.
The next moment his hand dropped and
he stared. He caught sight of a ghoulish form bent over a corpse. Itseemed to
be an old woman, gaunt, gray−haired, and nunnish in appearance. With a pine
torch in her righthand, she was peeping into the face of a corpse which had
long black hair.Seized more with horror than curiosity, he even forgot to
breathe for a time. He felt the hair of his head andbody stand on end. As he
watched, terrified, she wedged the torch between two floor boards and, laying handson
the head of the corpse, began to pull out the long hairs one by one, as a
monkey kills the lice of her young.
The hair came out smoothly with the
movement of her hands.As the hair came out, fear faded from his heart, and his
hatred toward the old woman mounted. It grewbeyond hatred, becoming a consuming
antipathy against all evil. At this instant if anyone had brought up
thequestion of whether he would starve to death or become a thief−the question
which had occurred to him alittle while ago−he would not have hesitated to
choose death. His hatred toward evil flared up like the piece ofpine wood which
the old woman had stuck in the floor.
He did not know why she pulled out
the hair of the dead. Accordingly, he did not know whether her case wasto be
put down as good or bad. But in his eyes, pulling out the hair of the dead in
the Rashoømon on thisstormy night was an unpardonable crime. Of course it never
entered his mind that a little while ago he hadthought of becoming a thief.
Then, summoning strength into his
legs, he rose from the stairs and strode, hand on sword, right in front of
theold creature. The hag turned, terror in her eyes, and sprang up from the
floor, trembling. For a small momentshe paused, poised there, then lunged for
the stairs with a shriek.
"Wretch! Where are you
going?" he shouted, barring the way of the trembling hag who tried to
scurry pasthim. Still she attempted to claw her way by. He pushed her back to
prevent her... they struggled, fell amongthe corpses, and grappled there. The issue
was never in doubt. In a moment he had her by the arm, twisted it,and forced
her down to the floor. Her arms were all skin and bones, and there was no more
flesh on them thanon the shanks of a chicken. No sooner was she on the floor
than he drew his sword and thrust the silver−white
blade before her very nose. She was
silent. She trembled as if in a fit, and her eyes were open so wide thatthey
were almost out of their sockets, and her breath come in hoarse gasps. The life
of this wretch was hisnow. This thought cooled his boiling anger and brought a
calm pride and satisfaction. He looked down at her,and said in a somewhat
"Look here, I'm not an officer
of the High Police Commissioner. I'm a stranger who happened to pass by
thisgate. I won't bind you or do anything against you, but you must tell me
what you're doing up here."
Then the old woman opened her eyes
still wider, and gazed at his face intently with the sharp red eyes of abird of
prey. She moved her lips, which were wrinkled into her nose, as though she were
Her pointed Adam's apple moved in
her thin throat. Then a panting sound like the cawing of a crow camefrom her
"I pull the hair... I pull out
the hair... to make a wig."
Her answer banished all unknown from
their encounter and brought disappointment. Suddenly she was only atrembling
old woman there at his feet. A ghoul no longer: only a hag who makes wigs from
the hair of thedead Ñ to sell, for scraps of food. A cold contempt seized him.
Fear left his heart, and his former hatredentered. These feelings must have
been sensed by the other. The old creature, still clutching the hair she
hadpulled off the corpse, mumbled out these words in her harsh broken voice:
"Indeed, making wigs out of the
hair of the dead may seem a great evil to you, but these that are here
deserveno better. This woman, whose beautiful black hair I was pulling, used to
sell cut and dried snake flesh at theguard barracks, saying that it was dried
fish. If she hadn't died of the plague, she'd be selling it now. Theguards
liked to buy from her, and used to say her fish was tasty. What she did
couldn't be wrong, because ifshe hadn't, she would have starved to death. There
was no other choice. If she knew I had to do this in order tolive, she probably
He sheathed his sword, and, with his
left hand on its hilt, he listened to her meditatively. His right handtouched
the big pimple on his cheek. As he listened, a certain courage was born in his
heart−the couragewhich he had not had when he sat under the gate a little while
ago. A strange power was driving him in theopposite direction of the courage
which he had had when he seized the old woman. No longer did he wonderwhether
he should starve to death or become a thief. Starvation was so far from his
mind that it was the lastthing that would have entered it.
"Are you sure?" he asked
in a mocking tone, when she finished talking. He took his right hand from
hispimple, and, bending forward, seized her by the neck and said sharply:
"Then it's right if I rob you.
I'd starve if I didn't."
He tore her clothes from her body
and kicked her roughly down on the corpses as she struggled and tried toclutch
his leg. Five steps, and he was at the top of the stairs. The yellow clothes he
had wrested off were underhis arm, and in a twinkling he had rushed down the
steep stairs into the abyss of night. The thunder of hisdescending steps
pounded in the hollow tower, and then it was quiet.
Shortly after that the hag raised up
her body from the corpses. Grumbling and groaning, she crawled to the topstair
by the still flickering torchlight, and through the gray hair which hung over
her face, she peered down tothe last stair in the torch light.
Beyond this was only darkness...
unknowing and unknown.