Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa


“He had little choice of means, whether fair or foul, because of his helpless circumstances. If he chose honest means, he would undoubtedly starve to death beside the wall or in the Sujaki gutter. He would be brought to this gate and thrown away like a stray dog. If he decided to steal…his mind, after making the same detour time and again, came finally to the conclusion that he would be a thief.”

The servant whom this paragraph describes has been dismissed because of the declining economy. He waits under the Roshomon gate for the rain to cease and ponders his circumstances. Should he be honest and die? Or should he be a thief and live? He seems to feel that these are the only two choices available to him.

When he sees a light go on above him, he discovers an old hag pulling out the hair of a corpse, beautiful hair that she plans to make into a wig which can be sold for food. Is she a thief?

Does it matter if we take from a person who is alive or dead? In the taking are we automatically categorized as a thief?

He is filled with hatred, and yet he decides that if the old woman can take from the corpse, who sold snake flesh as dried fish while living, he can take from her.

When the hag looks for him through the gray locks of her hair, all she can see is darkness. It seems to be the darkness of hopelessness; an endless circle of using another for one’s own good.

rashomon gate

“The Rashomon was the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was 106 feet wide and 26 feet deep, and was topped with a ridge pole; it’s stone -wall rose 75 feet high. This gate  was constructed in 789 when the capital of Japan was transferred to Kyoto. With the decline of West Kyoto, the gate fell into bad repair, cracking and crumbling in many places, and became a hideout for thieves and robbers and a place for abandoning unclaimed corpses.” (Tuttle edition)

I read this story for the Japanese Literature Challenge 8 and the Deal Me In short story challenge.

In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

This fascinating story is the account of a samurai’s murder given to a high police commissioner from the perspective of a woodcutter, a traveling Buddhist priest, a policeman, an old woman, the man’s wife, and the murdered man himself (through a medium).  As you read, you think that the story will become clear; each person’s revelation should surely uncover the truth about what was found in the grove.

Except each person’s testimony only confuses the story further. With every account the blame shifts, the details change, the culprit becomes someone entirely new, until by the end of the story we have less clarity than when we began.

I used to ask my mother how something could be true. “If I remember a Christmas holiday happening this way, and my brother has a totally different memory of it happening that way, what is the truth?” (I once expected the world to be definable, to be constant, to fit within my understanding. She was rarely daunted in her explanations.)

“What happened is the truth for you,” she replied. And thus I became aware that there is no such thing as an absolute truth.

I think that this is what Akutagawa is pointing at. As humans we have little ability to see clearly. To see objectively. To even see from another person’s perspective. We see with our own limited vision, often with blinders on, and asking for  the truth becomes an impossibility.

You can read the story for free, here.