Kappa (河童, “river-child”), alternatively called Kawatarō (川太郎, “river-boy”), Komahiki (“horse puller”), or Kawako (川子, “river-child”), are a yōkai (a class of supernatural monster) found in Japanese folklore, and also a cryptid.
Their name comes from a mixture of the word “kawa” (river) and “wappo”, an inflection of “waraba” (child). A hair-covered variation of a kappa is called a Hyōsube (ひょうすべ). There are more than eighty other names associated with the kappa in different regions which include Kawappa, Gawappa, Kōgo, Mizushi, Mizuchi, Enkō, Kawaso, Suitengu, and Dangame. Along with the oni and the tengu, they are one of the most well-known yōkai in Japan.
Kappa are similar to Finnish Näkki, Scandinavian/Germanic Näck/Neck, Slavian Vodník and Scottish Kelpie in that all have been used to scare children of dangers lurking in waters.
It has been suggested that the kappa legends are based on the Japanese giant salamander or “hanzaki”, an aggressive salamander which grabs its prey with its powerful jaws.
Kappa are typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form, and about the size of a child. Their scaly, reptilian skin ranges in colour from green to yellow or blue. Kappa supposedly inhabit the ponds and rivers of Japan and have various features to aid them in this environment, such as webbed hands and feet. They are sometimes said to smell like fish and, as you might imagine, are accomplished swimmers.
The expression kappa-no-kawa-nagare (“a kappa drowning in a river”) conveys the idea that even experts make mistakes. Although their appearance varies from region to region, the most consistent features are a turtle-like shell, a face resembling a monkey, a beak for a mouth, and a plate (sara), which is a flat hairless region on top of their head that is always wet, and which is regarded as the source of their power. This cavity must be full whenever a kappa is away from the water; if it ever dries, the kappa will lose its power, and may even die, according to some legends.
Another notable feature in some stories, is that the kappa’s arms are said to be connected to each other through the torso and able to slide from one side to the other. While they are primarily water creatures, they do on occasion venture onto land. When they do, the plate can be covered with a metal cap for protection. In fact, in some incarnations, kappa will spend spring and summer in the water, and the rest of the year in the mountains as a Yama-no-Kami (山の神, “mountain deity”). Kappa are believed to speak the Japanese language and be curious about Mankind and their ways.
Kappa are usually seen as mischievous troublemakers or trickster figures. Their pranks range from the relatively innocent, such as loudly breaking wind or looking up women’s kimonos, to the malevolent, such as drowning people and animals, kidnapping children, and raping women. Victims of the latter crime who gave birth to offspring were said to have buried them alive due to their repulsive appearance.
As water monsters, kappa have been frequently blamed for drownings, and are often said to try to lure people to the water and pull them in with their great skill at wrestling.They are sometimes said to take their victims for the purpose of drinking their blood, eating their livers or gaining power by taking their shirikodama (尻子玉), a mythical ball said to contain their soul which is located inside the anus (don’t shoot the messenger!).
Even today, signs warning about kappa appear by bodies of water in some Japanese towns and villages where there have been historical reports of their sightings. Kappa are also said to victimise animals, especially horses and cows; the motif of the kappa trying to drown horses is found all over Japan. In these stories, if a kappa is caught in the act, it can be made to apologise, sometimes in writing. This usually takes place in the stable where the kappa attempted to attack the horse, which is considered the place where the kappa is most vulnerable.
It was believed that if confronted with a kappa there were a few means of escape: Kappa, for one reason or another, obsess over being polite, so if a person were to gesture a deep bow to a kappa it would more than likely return it. In doing so, the water kept in the lilypad-like bowl on their head would spill out and the kappa would be rendered unable to leave the bowed position until the bowl was refilled with water from the river in which it lived. If a human were to refill it, it was believed the kappa would serve them for all eternity.
A similar weakness of the kappa in some tales are their arms, which can be easily pulled from their body. If their arm is detached, they will perform favours or share knowledge in exchange for its return. Once the kappa is in possession of its arm it can then be reattached. Another method of defeat involves the kappa and their known love of shogi or sumo wrestling. They will sometimes challenge those they encounter to wrestle or other various tests of skill. This tendency is easily used against them just as with the bow, by encouraging them to spill the water from their sara.
They will also accept challenges put to them, such as in the tale of the farmer’s daughter who was promised to a kappa in marriage by her father in return for the creature irrigating his land. She challenged it to submerge several gourds in water and when it failed in its task, it retreated and she was saved from the promised marriage.Kappa have also been driven away using their aversion to variously, iron, sesame, or ginger. It is possible to distract a kappa by offering it their favourite food (more-so even than child flesh) cucumbers – this has even led to a kind of cucumber-filled sushi roll named for the kappa, the kappamaki. By carving your name and birthdate on a cucumber, they will steer well clear of you.
In May, 2014, the British ‘newspaper’, The Daily Mail, reported that the remains of a kappa, shot in 1818, were to be put on display in Japan. Read the ludicrous story here