One of Akutagawa’s best-known stories, “Rashmon” tells of a nameless servant in Kyto who has been laid off by his samurai master after an economic decline in the Heian period. The servant takes shelter from a rainstorm in the Rashmon Gate. Once a proud, multistoried structure decorated with crimson lacquer, the gate has fallen into disrepair and now serves as a den for wild animals, a hideout for thieves, and a dumping ground for unclaimed corpses.
As the servant sits considering whether to starve to death—an honorable course of action—or to dishonorably survive by becoming a thief, he sees movement on the steps above and creeps upward with his hand on his sword. He finds an old hag plucking the long, black hair from the head of the abandoned corpse of a woman. Disturbed by her ghoulish behavior, the servant confronts the hag. She claims she is stealing the hair to construct a wig she will sell for food in order to survive. The hag asserts her action is fitting because while the dead woman was alive, she survived by less than honorable means—cooking snake meat for sale and passing it off as fish.
Caught up in the logic of this argument, the servant succumbs to his instinct for survival. He, too, becomes a thief; he overpowers the hag, rips the shabby clothing off her body, and leaves her alive among the scattered corpses. Clutching his ill-gotten booty that he will sell to live for yet another day, he runs off into the night, leaving the hag to fend for herself as best she can.