The story recounts the encounter between a servant and an old woman in the dilapidated Rashōmon, the southern gate of the then-ruined city of Kyoto, where unclaimed corpses were sometimes dumped. The current name of the gate in the story, but not the plot, comes from the Noh play Rashōmon (c. 1420).
The man, a lowly servant recently fired, is contemplating whether to starve to death or to become a thief to survive in the barren times. When he goes upstairs, after noticing some firelight there, he encounters the woman, who is stealing hair from the dead bodies on the second floor. He is disgusted, and decides then that he would rather take the path of righteousness even if it meant starvation. He is furious with the woman.
But the old woman tells him that she steals hair to make wigs, so she can survive. In addition, the woman whose body she is currently robbing cheated people in her life by selling snake meat and claiming it was fish. The old woman says that this was not wrong because it allowed the woman to survive — and so in turn this entitles her to steal from the dead person, because if she doesn't, she too will starve. The man responds: "You won't blame me, then, for taking your clothes. That's what I have to do to keep from starving to death". He then brutally robs the woman of her robe and disappears into the night.