Uji Dainagon Takakuni, the Chief Councilor of State during the early 1100's, wakes from a nap with a shout. He feels it is an especially hot day for spring, so he has his servant boys fan him. He remembers that he had many townspeople gather at the teahouse so that he could write down their stories for a storybook.
The boys fan the whole room and Uji orders various people to be at ease for the storytelling. He orders the oldest member of the party, the potter, to tell the first story:
In Nara there lived a priest named Kurodo Tokugyo with an enormous crimson nose. His nickname was Hanazō (big nose). He came to the bank of the pond of Sarusawa one night and set up a notice board with the words: On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond. It was a black lie though. It turned out that he was displeased with the jokes that his fellow priests had been making about his nose. Tricks like these were common in the old days, says the narrator.
An old woman notices it the next morning, but cannot read it so she asks a nearby priest to read it for her. He explains that a long time ago a scholar had a lump on his eyelid and when a thunderstorm came, it burst open and ascended to heaven. Therefore, it is very possible that this sign tells the truth. She agrees that the water looks a bit suspicious and then scurries off. Of course, this was no ordinary priest: it was Hanazō himself.
Emon, another priest with a mortar-shaped head, hears the news of the sign and glares dubiously at Hanazō. He checks out the notice board and Hanazō bursts into laughter. Many people now know of the notice board and there are rumors false and true surrounding it.
Then, a nine-year-old daughter of a priest has a dream that a black dragon that will ascend to heaven on March 3rd but will cause no trouble for the towns-people. The story changed shape and form many times. Another fisherman said he had seen the dragon and scared it away on accident with his footsteps. People say he mistook an old otter for the dragon, but others say an otter cannot live in the pond where a dragon rules - he only takes pity on fish.
Hanazō chuckles to himself daily and dilates his nose frequently, but then his aunt, a priestess from a far away town, came to visit him. She was excited to see a dragon before her time on earth was up. Hanazō is embarrassed, but cannot say anything, so he entertains his aunt for several days preceding the dragon's ascension.
When March 3rd finally comes, the pond and miles around it are teeming with spectators from all over the country. Hanazō lacked enough spirit even "to sniff with his large nose" (loc. 940). When he finally goes to meet his aunt, he runs into Emon, the arrogant priest from before, who says that the dragon is "slow in coming out" (loc. 950).
Feeling that his joke had gone too far. Everybody waited breathlessly for the whole morning and for whatever reason, Hanazō's miserable feeling gradually faded away. A streak of cloud formed over the pond, the sky went dark, and a thunderstorm ensued in the twinkling of an eye. A blurred vision of a black dragon appears before Hanazō's eyes and the crowds scurry away, utterly frightened. When he conferred with his aunt, she had seen it as well. In fact, most of the town had seen it.
When Hanazō tried to explain that it was all part of his mischievous prank, nobody cared to believe him.
Uji enjoys the story very much and asserts that a dragon must have lived in that pond, if only because the people believed it to be so. He then jokes that he should like to hear the story of a long-nosed priest.
Uji Takakuni was the author of Konjaku Monogatarishū, a collection of ancient tales from across China, India, and Japan, however he is falsely identified as the author of Uji Shuishu (Gleanings from the Tales of Uji), the storybook from which Akutagawa took this story. In any case, Akutagawa made the connection and retold this story with Uji as the collector, a situation that is not too far removed from the truth, since he did encourage towns-people to tell him tales like this for the Konjaku Monogatarishū. Akutagawa used this book as the source for many of his other stories, such as "Rashōmon."
Like many of Akutagawa's stories, "The Dragon" deals with themes of religious insincerity and physical ugliness. The big nose of Hanazō's instigates the whole of these events and even serves as a symbol for insecurity, which allows him to look to an event like the dragon's ascension as a proof for heaven. Besides this, the nose is frequently brought into the text as a supposed tool that Hanazō is not using properly. Whenever it is mentioned, it is because it seems that Hanazō has forgotten about it. It seems that his prank successfully averted his and his peers’ attention from his nose, which was the point all along. However, when the ascension is over, it does not seem likely that his peers will stop making fun of him. After all, he could never have predicted the ascension of the dragon - there's no way that he put up that notice board to trick us all!
Sometimes translated as "Dragon: the Old Potter's Tale," this historical tale also details the nature of religion and mass hysteria as seen through Akutagawa's eyes. As translator Jay Rubin writes, "Dragon toys with the likelihood that religion is nothing more than mass hysteria, a force so powerful that even the fabricator of an object of veneration can be taken in by it." So the notice board is meant to represent a holy text and the ascension of the dragon to be the proof.
By looking closely at the language that the old potter uses surrounding the prophetic event, we see that each assertion is qualified by evasive clauses like "it is said," "hooked hands seemed to tear apart," and his "eyes caught a blurred vision." Although the dragon is described in detail, he wonders immediately afterward if it was an illusion and calls it impossible. Of course, his aunt, who could never be persuaded of the falsehood of the prophecy, agreed that the dragon had ascended and the town certainly followed suit.
The brilliance of "The Dragon" is that it cannot be determined whether the dragon had actually ever ascended or if, as Uji states, the desire to see a dragon created the dragon. Was it Hanazō's insecurity about his own nose that created the dragon? Or was it the universe creating the dragon in spite of his nose, so that he would never feel satisfied? We cannot say whether his desire to pull a prank was truly fulfilled, but one thing is certain - every person in attendance at the event was made to believe that it was not a prank at all.