Also Called: Gataro (“River Boy”), Kawako (“River Child”), Kawataro (“River Boy” or “River Tiger”), Komahiki (“Horse Puller”), Suiko (“Water Tiger”)
There are some eighty names for kappa depending on the region they’re found in. Next to the oni and tengu, kappa are some of the best known yokai found in Japan.
Some of these other names are: Dangame (“Soft-Shelled Turtle”), Enko (“monkey”), Gawappa, Kawappa, Kawaso (“otter”), Kogo, Mizuchi, Mizushi, and Suitengu.
Etymology – “River-Child” from the words kawa for “river” and wappo, an inflection of waraba meaning “child.”
In the Shinto Religion of Japan, Kappa are mischievous water spirits or yokai who will pull young children and the unwary into the river and ponds where they live and drown them. Kappa are also known for attacking travelers and animals. Even today, many towns and villages keep signs out warning of the dangers of kappa near a river.
Some of the less deadly pranks that kappa will pull are passing gas loudly and looking up women’s kimonos. They will also steal crops, flat out kidnap children and rape women.
The kappa are curious about human culture, they are not mindlessly aggressive and many can be appealed or reasoned with as they do speak Japanese. Wisemen were known to befriend kappa and learn the art of setting bones from them. It’s thought that somehow, kappa were once wise monkeys.
Kappa will also sometimes challenge people to different tests of skill such as shogi or sumo wrestling. People have been known to befriend kappa by giving gifts and offerings, often of food and especially cucumbers.
The kappa are a major folkloric figure that people have reported seeing for centuries. They have remained a staple of literature and even the tourist industry in some towns will tell visitors to be wary of kappa and to be careful.
In Shinto, the Kappa are viewed as one of many types of Suijin or water people or even water deities. Many of these water deities or spirits are often depicted as snakes, dragons, eels, fish, turtles and kappa. It is believed that belief in kappa can be traced back to China, though much of the kappa lore is native to Japan.
With the arrival of Chinese and Koreans during the 2nd century C.E. along with the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, the imagery of kappa would be begin to take on these attributes.
While the name for the most powerful Suijin in Japan is Mizu no Kamisama or Goddess or God of Water, the kappa are more accurately referred to as Kawa no Kami or River Deity reflecting a less powerful status.
The offering of cucumbers to kappa may have come from a tradition of giving the year’s first crop of cucumbers and eggplants to the local river to either appease local water deities or hungry ghosts.
Festivals – There are still some festivals held in places, twice a year during the equinoxes to placate the kappa and ensure a good harvest. These festivals also mark the time of the year when the kappa travel down from the mountains to the rivers and back up.
Kappa Odori Dance – This is a sacred Shinto dance used to pray for abundant crops. Young boys dress up as kappa and jump and bounce around in time to the humorous music as it’s played.
Jozankei Hot Springs – A local spa near the Toyohiragawa River to the southwest of Sapporo. Named after the monk who found the place, the kappa are local guardian spirits. Some 23 kappa statues stand around the area. The Kappa Pool becomes very lively in early August during the Kappa Festival. A local legend holds that the story of the Kappa Buchi occurred here.
Ainu Folklore – The Ainu are Japan’s earliest inhabitants who live mostly on the northern island of Hokkaido. The connection here is very tentative as some believe that the kappa come from Ainu folklore. There’s just not enough known of their mythology to really make a concrete connection. What does get cited is that near the main city Sapporo on Hokkaido is an area known as Jozankei where the legends for the “Great Kappa King” and the “Kappa Buchi Legend” can be found, though these stories are not likely to be of Ainu origin and mythology.
Nihon Shoki – Chronicles of Japan – One of Japan’s earliest and official records, it was compiled sometime around 720 C.E. It is the first text to refer to kappa where it is called Kawa no Kami or River Deity in this text.
Wakan Sansaizue – Kappa don’t really take on popularity until around Japan’s medieval era, during the Edo period. The Wakan Sansaizue is a 105-volume encyclopedia dating to about 1713 C.E. and is the first to depict a kappa.
Gazu Hyakkiyagyō – Or the “Night Procession of One Hundred Demons” is a four volume text that next shows and depicts kappa within it.
From here, the popularity of kappa in continues in the Edo Period, appearing in a serial called Kasshiyawa where the kappa called Kawataro. Another document is the Mimibukuro, a 10-volume text written by Negishi Yasumori.
Portuguese Monks – When Portuguese monks arrived in Japan during the 16th century, their appearance of cloaks that hung down in back like a kappa’s shell and their shaven heads resulting in a bald head crowned with hair known as a Capa for the Portuguese word for this hair style would easily become absorbed into Japan’s Kappa lore…. After all a homophone of words Kappa and Capa sound very alike.
Drowned Monkeys – Some legends will hold that the first kappa come from monkeys. Yanagida Kunio records a story where he notes that some regions of Japan referred to kappa as enko or monkeys.
There is a famous Buddhist story from China in which a group of monkeys tried to capture the moon’s reflection. For their trouble and efforts, the monkeys were drowned.
The Monkey King Versus The Water Demon – There are a number of tales for the Indian collection of Buddha stories called Jataka. Dating from the 3rd century B.C.E. India and Sri Lanka, the story in question features the monkey kingdom under attack from a monkey-eating water demon. The wise monkey king outwitted the demon with bamboo.
So, what’s the connection? In Sanskrit, the word Kapi translates to monkey. It’s possible that Kappa is a distorted form of Kapi. It would explain some of the descriptions of kappa being monkey-like is a carry over of this distortion. Further, there is a kapi jembawan, a monkey sage in Indonesian folklore based on the Dwarka kingdom where Lord Krishna ruled. The famous Hindi poet, Tulsidas who wrote the Ramayana some 500 years ago, uses the word kapi in place of the Vanara or monkey folk in the South who help Rama defeat Ravana.
If we’re looking at linguist connections, that could all hold up.
Kappa look like child-sized humanoid turtles or more often monkeys with scaly limbs and thick tortoise shells. Some kappa are depicted with ape-like faces while others are more beaked. Skin coloration ranges from green to yellow and even blue.
The most distinguishing feature of kappa are the bowl or saucer-shaped depressions on the top of their heads called a sara (meaning “dish,” “bowl,” or “plate.”) When leaving the water, kappa makes sure that the sara is kept filled with water. The sara is surrounded with scraggly hair in a bobbed hair style known as okappa-atama. Should the kappa loose this water, it loses its strength and powers, possibly even dying in this weakened state if water isn’t refilled. Some kappa are reputed to have taken to wearing a metal plate or cap to cover their sara so the water doesn’t pour or dry out, thus weakening them.
Depending on the story, the arms of a kappa are said to be connected to each such, that the kappa can slide their arm from one side to the other. I can see that trick, the kappa is wearing a shell, pull one arm in and stuff it out the other arm hole, much like a person does when wearing a t-shirt. I’m sure it’s a simple enough illusion and magic trick to pull off.
Aquatic creatures who live in ponds and rivers, Kappa also possess webbed hands and feet. People have commented that Kappa smell like fish. Some of the legends involving kappa have them spending spring and summer down in the water during autumn and winter, heading up to the Yama-no-Kami (“Mountain Deities”) mountains. While kappa can be found throughout much of Japan, they’re often found in the Saga Prefecture.
Hyosube – This is the name for the kappa’s hairy cousin. The two are identical otherwise in terms of physical attributes and what they do. The biggest distinction of the two aside from hair, is that kappa are more prone to staying outside. The Hyosube are more likely to sneak into people’s homes to cause mischief, namely to take a bath. Being so hairsute, the hyosube are known to shed hair which is deadly to those who encounter it in Japanese folklore.
Shibaten – Also called Shibatengu, is a more turtle-like kappa where the kappa can be more ape or monkey like in appearance.
The kappa feed on a diet of blood and cucumbers.
Blood – Young children are told to be wary when playing near the water’s edge of ponds and rivers. Children are a kappa’s favored meal though they’re not above eating an adult.
Eww… so what makes humans so appealing to a kappa is a shirikodama that they will suck out of a person’s anus. Alrighty then.
And the shirikodama? Depending on the source and legend, that’s a mystical ball containing a person’s life force or soul that’s found near the anus, entrails, in the blood or liver.
Cucumbers – The only thing that kappa love more than small children. Its customary for some Japanese parents to write the names of their children or themselves on a cucumber and toss it into a pond or river where the kappa are believed to dwell.
Other Food Offerings – Cucumbers aren’t the only food item a kappa will accept. Offerings of eggplant, soba noodles, natto (fermented soybeans) and kabocha (winter squash) are accepted by kappa.
Being an aquatic yokai, it goes without saying that kappa are master swimmers with a vast knowledge of water and it’s importance.
Strength – Much of a kappa’s strength is tied to the waters of the pond or river it calls home. The water that a kappa keeps in the depression on its head is a source of its strength and even life.
Flatulence – I’m not sure that I would call this a power. Suffice to say that a kappa can use a particularly noxious gas attack in self-defense much like skunks do. A kappa is known to release this gas not just as a prank but to get someone like fishermen to let it go.
Flight – So those cucumbers offered to the kappa, not only do they eat the cucumbers, the kappa uses them to fly around on like dragonflies. Okay….
So how does one manage to thwart and defeat a Kappa you might ask?
Arms – If we go off the idea that the arms of a kappa are connected to each other, they can be easily pulled off. If a person manages to get a kappa’s arm, they will perform a task in order to get it back. Assuming the arm can be reattached.
Challenges – Kappa aren’t mindlessly aggressive, and a person can reason with them. If they don’t have an offering of cucumbers to give, a person can try challenging the kappa. Most challenges usually take the form of feats of strength with wrestling matches.
One challenge found in a folktale sees a Farmer’s daughter get promised to a kappa in marriage in exchange for the yokai to irrigate his land. The daughter challenged the kappa to submerge several gourds in water. When the kappa failed at this task, the daughter was freed from the marital arrangement.
Fire – Being water creatures, it stands to reason that Kappa are held to be afraid of fire and loud noises. Some villages in Japan will have fireworks festivals each year to try and scare away spirits.
Land – Kappa can’t survive for long on the land and must always keep their heads wet, especially the sara filled with water.
Etiquette – That in mind, the kappa are overly found of etiquette, so if you bow deeply to them in greeting, they will bow as well, spilling the water from their sara. With this water spilled, the kappa loses its strength and any powers, becoming weakened and possibly die if this water isn’t refilled. It must be water from their home river or pond that is poured back in. If a human is the one who refills this water, it is believed that the kappa would the human in question for the rest of eternity.
Cucumbers – Offering the Kappa a nice tasty cucumber is sure to do the trick and placate them instead of trying to haul you into the river to drown.
Instead of offering the cucumber, a person would the vegetable themselves as a means of protection before swimming. Though some will say this is sure to guarantee an attack.
Miscellaneous – There’s a variety of other items that supposedly drive away kappa. These items include ginger, iron and sesame.
A Friend For Life
Those who have successfully befriended a kappa find that they truly have a friend for life. Kappa are known to help farmers in any number of ways such as irrigating fields. The kappa are very knowledgeable in the way of medicine and have been known to teach the art of bone setting to humans.
There are shrines to kappa that have been established, especially of a particularly helpful kappa. You could trick a kappa into service via the bowing and refilling the bowl on their head with water. He’s not likely to be so nice about the help he gives then.
The kappa, like the European Fae won’t break an oath as their sense of etiquette and decorum is such, they just won’t. So yeah, a human can trick a kappa into service and get one to swear an oath to them, the kappa’s sense of honor says they will follow it through to the end.
There are a few expressions associated with kappa.
Kappa Maki – A cucumber sushi roll named for kappa.
“Kappa-no-kawa-nagare” – This phrase translates to “A kappa drowning in a river” is used to mean that even an expert can make mistakes.
“Kappa no He” – Much ado about nothing, the literal translation is water-imp fart. This is my new favorite.
Okappa – the bobbed hairstyles that look like those kappa sport.
This is a martial arts style invented by Kappa who will sometimes teach it to humans. The name of koppojutsu translates as “attacks against bones.” It is a hard-martial art compared to another, koshijutsu that is a soft-martial art that targets an opponent’s muscles.
The Kappa Pool is a legend found in the Jozankei region of Japan.
A young man was out fishing in a deep pool and he ended up falling in. He never surfaced. Some months later, as his father slept, the son came to him in a dream and told his father that he was living happily with the Kappa, that he even had a kappa wife and child. Shortly after, the pool came to be known as the Kappa Buchi.
The Kappa bridge found in Tokyo used to be farmland that was surrounded by canals prone to flooding. During the late Edo period, a raincoat dealer, Kappaya Kihachi spent his entire fortune on building a better drainage system. The work proved more difficult than expect and taking longer to complete.
Falling into despair and about to give up, the man was visited by a kappa whose life he had saved many years before. The kappa had arrived to help and in no time at all, the new drainage system was completed. Further, the story goes that those who saw the kappa were blessed with good fortune. Shortly after, the Kappa Temple was built to honor and enshrine the kappa as a local deity.
Saiyuki – Journey West
When the Chinese epic of Journey to the West arrived in Japan, the character of Sha Wujing’s name is changed to Sangojo or Sagojo. Where Sha Wujing or Sandy is often depicted as a Water Buffalo or some kind of water demon, in Japan, he is frequently identified as a kappa.
Horses & Livestock & Monkeys!
Continuing a connection of Kappa to the Journey West story, in which kappa come from drown monkeys. In Chinese lore, monkeys are shown riding horses and in Journey West, the Jade Emperor appoints Monkey or Son Goku to a position of a Stable Hand or Protector of Horses.
This connection could explain a few different folktales and stories of kappa harassing people’s horse and cattle. There is a story recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in Kawachimura where a horse-stealing kappa was captured and forced to sign an agreement never to harm any people or steal from them again. The kappa even went so far as to swear he would get his fellow kappa to swear to the oath of leaving humans alone.
Of course, it could be too much of a stretch and horses were just one of many animals and objects that kappa would try to steal from humans.
Possible Reality Behind The Myths
Drowning – It’s likely stories of kappa developed as a means to scare and warn children from wandering too close to the water’s edge at any pond or river.
Kappa are even blamed for drowning deaths and signs are still posted near bodies of water that warn of kappa dangers.
Giant Salamanders – It makes sense, that inspiration for the kappa could come from the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki. It is a large, aggressive salamander that grow up to five feet in length that will grab its prey with powerful jaws.
Miscarriages & Leech Babies – Touching back on that idea of kappa rapping women. There is an 18th century Ukiyo-e picture by Utamaro showing a kappa rapping an ama diver while underwater. That’s a bit unpleasant. More relevant might be a belief found in Kunio Yanagita’s Tono Monogatari, in which women who were raped by kappa and became pregnant often had repulsive babies born. These babies, called Leech Babies, would be buried shortly after.
Sometimes these stillborn babies would be tossed into a river and children would be warned to stay away from the water’s edge to avoid seeing these dead babies. Sadly, sometimes a poor family might have tossed an unwanted baby into the river if they couldn’t afford to care for it.
It’s possible a woman might say she had been raped by a kappa in order to try and explain why a baby was born deformed and likely stillborn. It would provide a way of saving face to explain a stillborn and deformities. That’s my take after reading in Celtic folklore and comparing it the myths regarding Changelings and parents who have a child that dies of SIDs, you just say the fairies came and took your baby and that the one isn’t real. Because somewhere, your real baby is still alive.
Similar Folkloric Figures
There are a few other, similar figures found in other cultures from around the world that have been used to scare young children from straying too close to the water’s edge.
Kelpie – A fearsome water horse in Scottish folklore known to drown those who try to ride it.
Näkki – A water monster from Finnish folklore.
Neck – Also called Nix or Nixie, a similar shapeshifting creature to the Näkki, only from Germanic and Scandinavian folklore.
Shui Gui – Water Ghost or Water Monkey is a similar creature found in Chinese folklore.
Siyokoy – Found in the Philippin islands and known for kidnapping children. Their description is very similar to those of kappa.
Vodyanoy – A frog-like water spirit found in Slavic folklore.
Vodnik – A green humanoid spirit or creature found in western Slavic folklore, particularly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.