About the Story
The Spider's Thread (蜘蛛, 1918) is a Japanese short story written by AKUTAGAWA Ryûnosuke (芥川 龍之介). The story shares similarities with an older Japanese story, which involves a character also named Kandata, also at hell.¹ The plot of the story is strongly influenced by a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This chapter is found at part III, book VII, chapter 3, titled An Onion. While the original chapter is quite long, some translators have greatly abridged the chapter. Here is a translation I found at The Onion node (which incidentally reminded me of this story):
Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; 'She once pulled up an onion in her garden,' said he, 'and gave it to a beggar woman.' And God answered: 'You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.'

The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. 'Come,' said he, 'catch hold and I'll pull you out.' he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. began kicking them. 'I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.' As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.
The Spider's Thread involves Buddha in paradise trying to rescue Kandata who is in hell for murder, thievery, and arson. This raises the question: is forgiveness in line with Buddhist theology?

Translation Notes
The original text of The Spider's Thread refers to Buddha as O-Shaka-sama, a common name for Buddha in Japan. O-Shaka-sama is Shaka with Japanese honorifics applied, and the name Shaka derives from one of Buddha's Hindi name, Shakyamuni, meaning "the silent sage of the Shakyas," probably a name referring to his Noble Silence. In order to reflect these facts, I often refer to Buddha as Lord Shakyamuni in my translation.

The genus and species of the lotus mentioned in the story is most likely Nelumbium speciosum. This species is a symbol often associated with Buddhism in Japan.

The Buddhist and Taoist concept of hell in Japan does not come from Buddha's teachings, but rather can be traced back to a nineth century text called the Juuoukyou (十王経, written well over a millenia after Shakyamuni's death). The Sanzu river in this hell is similar to the river Styx in Greek mythology, in the sense that it is where dead people cross to go to the underworld.

The Spider's Thread
by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
translation by tongpoo


One day, Lord Shakyamuni was strolling around the edge of a lotus lake. Lotus flowers that blossomed in the lake were immaculately white, spherical. From each flower's golden center, an ineffable fragrance flowed and permeated the surroundings. It was about morning in heaven.

Soon, Lord Shakyamuni stood at the edge of the lake and peered between the lotus leaves that covered the lake surface, for a quick glance at the situation below. Below this lotus lake laid the bottom of hell. Therefore, below the crystal clear water, sceneries of the Sanzu river, and the mountain of needles were clearly visible as if seen through a water glass.

An outstanding thief called Kandata, seen writhing with the other sinners caught the Lord's eyes. This man Kandata has done all kinds of crimes such as arson and murder, however Lord Shakyamuni remembered one good deed that he has done. Which is to say, there was a time when this man was walking down a forest, and found a small spider crawling his trail. There, Kandata steadfastly rose his foot in order to stomp it dead. Then he thought "no, even this little one has a life. I shouldn't take that away so recklessly. That would be too cruel," and ended up sparing the spider without killing it.

While the Lord was observing hell, he remembered when Kandata once spared the life of a spider. Just for the retribution of this good deed, Shakyamuni thought of a possible way of saving this man. Luckily, when Lord Shakyamuni looked to his side, a spider of heaven was spinning a beautiful silver thread on a jade-colored lotus leaf. The Lord carefully raised a thread in his hand and lowered the tip between spherical white lotuses, straight toward the bottom of hell.


At the bottom of hell, Kandata was floating and sinking in a lake of blood with the other sinners. It was pitch black in all directions, except for the occasional dim light of reflection from the dreadful mountain of needles that could only bring about inexpressible forlornness. On top of it all, the hushed surrounding was only interrupted by occasional faint sighs of the sinners whom were too exhausted from punishment that they lost their strength to even cry. Even the outstanding thief Kandata, choked in blood, could only twitch like a dying frog.

Something out of the ordinary was happening. By chance, Kandata raised his head and glanced at the sky of the lake of blood, when from the still darkness, far, far away, a silver thread ever thin and shining, as if fearful of others' eyes, slithered down towards himself. Seeing this, Kandata almost clapped his hands in joy. If he held onto this thread and climbed and climbed, he must be able to exit hell. No, if he is lucky, he could even go to heaven. Then he should never be lifted onto the mountain of needles, or be shoved into the lake of blood ever again.

Once this was thought, Kandata promptly and firmly grabbed the spider's thread and rigorously climbed upwards. Since he was an outstanding thief to begin with, he was very accustomed to escape.

However, between heaven and hell there was a distance thousands of leagues³ apart, so no matter how eager, the task was not easy. After some time climbing, Kandata was exhausted and could not make another tug. Left there with no other choice, intending for a break, Kandata hung midway, and glanced downward.

He noticed that his strenuous work has paid off and the lake of blood was now hidden in the depth of darkness. After that the dreaded glow of the mountain of needles was now below his foot. If he continued in this manner, getting out of hell may not be impossible. While grabbing onto the spider's thread with both hands, he said with a voice he has not utter for years, "Yes! Yes!" and laughed. Next thing he noticed on the spider's thread below were an uncountable number of sinners following him, like a procession of ants determined to climb continuously upwards. Upon seeing this, in fear and in shock, Kandata, for a while like a fool, mouth agape, only moved his eyes, which darting about. How could the spider's thread, so thin that it almost seemed to break upon his weight alone, carry so much more? If the string was to break off in the middle, all the effort put in and including himself would fall back to zero. If that would happen, it would be a serious matter. But even while he contemplated this, the sinners in the hundreds and thousands were swarming up, in one line, hurriedly climbing up the thinly shining spider's thread from the pitch dark lake of blood below. If he did not take immediate action, the string would split in half at the middle, and he was sure to fall down if that happened.

Kandata shouted angrily: "Damn you, sinners! This thread is mine! Who gave you permission to climb up here? Descend! Descend!"

Just in the middle of him shouting, it happened. The faithful spider's thread suddenly snapped from where Kandata was hanging, and Kandata no doubt couldn't stand it. Kandata immediately fell without a chance, like a rolled die, cutting wind.

What remained was the spider's thread from heaven, twinkling, in a sky without stars or a moon, only to dangle shortly.


Standing by the side of the lotus lake, Lord Shakyamuni observed the whole incident. Having seen Kandata eventually fall like a rock to the bottom of the lake of blood, Shakyamuni was with an expression of sadness on his face as he continued his stroll once again. Seeing that the merciless soul that tried to be the only one to escape from hell received a fit punishment by falling to the bottom of hell, Shakyamuni must have been disappointed.

However, the lotuses of heaven's lotus lake felt no remorse. At the bottom of Shakyamuni's feet, their white spherical flowers gently swayed their calyx. From the golden center of the flower, an ineffable fragrance permeated the surroundings. It was just about noon in heaven.

1. The other story with another Kandata in it was referred to in Timothy M. Kelly's translation and review of The Spider's Thread:

2. The original story by Akutagawa, which is no longer protected under Japanese copyright law, can be found at:

3. The actual distance in the original text is tens of thousands of ri's apart (Japanese ri = Chinese li = aprox. 0.4 miles) where "ten thousand" is usually used to denote a number too great to fathom. Basically, a lot of distance.

Shro0m helped me out a lot on proof-reading. Thanks Shro0m!!