April 17, 2006
by Satoko Kawaguchi; Natsuki Kamikura
A man who’s been fired from his job finds himself in a stew under the Rajomon gate. Times are very hard and jobs are scarce, so he thinks that he had better become a thief, but he can’t quite decide yet. When he enters the shadowy interior of the gate, he feels somebody is there. It is an old woman who is pulling hair from the dead. She says it is a means to live and that it can be considered acceptable because the dead themselves did evil to live while they were alive. Her words make the man decide to become a bandit. He then strips the woman of her clothing and says, “If I don’t steal this, I will die.” He disappears in the jet-black darkness.
This summary is of the well-known Japanese short story “Rashomon”, based on the actual Rajomon, and written by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, one of Japan’s famous authors. (You may also have seen or heard of a renowned film of the same title by director Kurosawa Akira.)
Rajomon was the main gate (mon) of the ancient Heian-kyo, now Kyoto. It was an eight-pillared, two-story gate and had a pair of roofs with eaves below the gables. The dimensions were impressive: about 35 meters wide, 9 meters deep and 21 meters high. This gate presented the dignified attitude of Heian-kyo when ambassadors from foreign countries visited Japan. It was also a triumphal arch. It is known that the gate was the same form and size as Suzakumon gate, the entrance of the Daidairi (the seat of government and also the place where the Emperor was based), which stood about four kilometers north of Rajomon on Suzaku-oji Street. This street was the main thoroughfare in the city, about 84 meters wide. Offices and imperial villas stood on both sides. But the vast expanse of the street itself was completely empty of structures because the building of gates in front of the street was prohibited. As Suzaku-oji was out of control, people left cows and horses there and occupied a part of it. To cap it all, the dead were thrown away in the channel. Suzaku-oji soon fell into ruin because of its impracticality and uselessness.
A lot of anecdotes remain about Rajomon, such as mysterious stories, tales of demons and so on. According to Jikkinsho, a narrative written in 1252, one night Miyako no Yoshika (a 9th century official and one of the literati) was passing Rajomon on horseback when he composed and spouted a Chinese poem:
The sky is clear
The wind blows
As if it combs the willow shoots looking like the hair of a beauty
A voice from the second floor of Rajomon added the next phrases:
The ice melts
Ripples sweep through the moss on the shore
As if a beard were being washed.
Yoshika presented this poem proudly in front of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), who was a scholar, poet and politician in the Heian period. Listening intently, the brilliant Michizane realized that the latter phrases had been written by a demon.
Rajomon was weak whenever faced with strong winds because its depth was short compared with its great height and width. As a result, Rajomon was broken by a gale during a storm in the year 816 and had to be reconstructed, but it was attacked again by a terrible storm in 980. After these two disasters, Rajomon fell into ruin as Ukyo, the western part of Heian-kyo, and Suzaku-oji, declined.
In 1023, Fujiwarano Michinaga ordered foundation stones to be carried from ruins in various places to build Hoshoji Temple, which was the biggest temple there was while he held power. The stones included those of Rajomon’s foundation. From the end of the Muromachi period (1392-1573) to the Momoyama period (the latter half of 16th century), the area around the ruins of Rajomon was used for the graves of monks who belonged to Toji Temple. As a result, the gate’s ruins were totally destroyed, and nothing original is left there today. The only trace of Rajomon now is a small park located on Kujo-dori about five minutes west of Toji Temple. There is just a small stone monument in the park. A one-tenth scale restoration of the gate was made for 1200th anniversary of transferring the capital to Kyoto. It is displayed in Palulu Plaza Kyoto near Kyoto station. You can also see a one-thirtieth scale restoration and a model of Heian-kyo in the Kyoto Cultural Museum.
Although Rajomon doesn’t exist today, it has been used as a source of wonderful story material by authors and filmmakers. The mystery of Rajomon continues to attract people, even as the world changes.