The word Kappa comes from the Kanto region of Japan, and translates as “child of the river.” They are also called Kawatarō (“river-boy”) or Kawako (“river-child”). Other names cite its resemblance to a monkey (Enko), a soft-shelled turtle (Dangame), or an otter (Kawaso); still others reference its traits (Komahiki, “horse puller”). A hair-covered variation of a Kappa is called a Hyōsube. In Shinto they are considered to be one of many Suijin (water Kami, or spirit creatures). Suijin commonly possess magical powers, which can be used for either benevolent or malevolent purposes.
The earliest recorded account of a Kappa is in the Nihon Shoki (“The Chronicles of Japan”), completed around 720 CE. According to this ancient text, in 379 CE a Kappa inhabited the Kahashima River in the Province of Kibi where its toxic slime poisoned the water drunk by passers-by. It was killed by the district warden, “a man of fierce temper and great bodily strength.”
In Japanese Shinto tradition, Kappas are malevolent water spirits who pull little children into the water to drown and devour them, and attack travelers and animals. These amphibious creatures dwell in lakes, rivers, and ponds, and are typically described as roughly humanoid in form, about the size of a 6-10-year-old child. They have webbed fingers and toes with five digits, frog-like legs, simian bodies with mottled green, blue, or yellowish-brown scales, and are sometimes depicted with a turtle shell on their backs. Some are shown with long-haired monkey faces, and some with turtle beaks or duck bills. They are said to smell like fish, and they can certainly swim like them.
Fig. 1. 12 types of Kappa. Drawing from mid-19th century Suiko juni-hin no zu
(“Illustrated Guide to 12 Types of Kappa”) by artist Kurimoto Tanshu (1756-1834).
Source: National Diet Library, Tokyo, Japan.
Kappas cannot live for long out of the water, for they must always keep their heads wet. They are said to have lilypad-like bowls or depressions atop their heads filled with a fluid which maintains their life force, magickal powers, and physical strength. Kappa are obsessive about decorum, and if you bow to one, it will politely bow back—and thus spill the fluid, rendering it immobile and helpless. Pouring water from the river back into the hollow restores the Kappa’s power, and renders it subservient to the pourer.
Kappa are troublesome creatures and like to play malicious pranks. These range from the relatively innocent, such as loudly farting or looking up women’s kimonos, to the malevolent, such as drowning people, kidnapping children, and raping and even impregnating women. The offspring of Kappas and human women were said to be repulsive, and were generally buried alive.
Kappas will ruin or steal crops, and will eat both children and adults if given the chance. Kappa are also said to attack animals, especially horses; the motif of the Kappa trying to drown horses is found all over Japan. Even today, signs warning about Kappa appear by bodies of water in some Japanese towns and villages.
Kappa live on blood and cucumbers, and are even said to fly through the air on enchanted cucumbers with dragonfly wings. In fact, they prefer cucumbers even to blood. Bribe a Kappa with a cucumber and it will promise you almost anything. And once a promise is made the Kappa is honor-bound to keep it.
Kappas are intelligent and curious creatures and find humans interesting as well as tasty. If provided with suitable offerings, they can be befriended by wise men. Once befriended, Kappas have been known to perform any number of tasks for human beings, such as helping farmers irrigate their land. Kappa are even credited with having taught the art of bonesetting to humans. Due to these benevolent aspects, there are shrines dedicated to the worship of particularly helpful Kappas.
Kappas can understand and speak Japanese, and they sometimes challenge those they encounter to various tests of skill, such as shogi or sumo wrestling. Japanese parents sometimes write the names of their children (or themselves) on cucumbers and toss them into waters believed to be infested with Kappas to propitiate the creatures and allow the family to bathe. There is even a kind of cucumber-filled sushi roll named for the Kappa, the kappamaki. Bobbed hairstyles that look like the Kappa’s hair are called Okappa, and the traditional straw raincoats worn by farmers are known as Kappa.
As with other reptiles and amphibians, Kappas become sluggish in cold weather and hibernate during the winter. There are said to be two distinct species: those that dwell in lowland waters, and others, called Yamawaro, that live in mountain streams. Although Kappa are reported throughout all of Japan, they are often said to be particular to the Saga Prefecture.
Fig. 2. Drawing of a Kappa which was caught in a net on Mito east beach in 1836.
Height about 3 feet, weight 100 pounds.
Several possibilities have been proposed as to what the Kappa actually is. Some say the term “Kappa” was first applied to “leech babies” (stillborn infants pitched into the river). “In olden times, poor families often killed newborns because they could not afford to raise them,” said an official from Tono City in a Yomiuri Shimbun article. “They generally threw their bodies into rivers. Perhaps adults made up Kappa stories so that children would be afraid to go near the rivers and see the dead babies” (a category of fabled creatures called “nursery bogies”).
Other historians claim that the term “Kappa” originated in the 16th century with the arrival in Japan of Capuchin monks from Portugal. Their cloaks had hoods that hung down their backs like the Kappa’s tortoise shell, and the monk’s distinctive shaven pate surrounded by hair resembled the Kappa’s hair-rimmed crater of water. Capa, the Portuguese word for the monk’s habit, was applied to the Suijin.
Some say the Kappa are derived from monkeys, particularly the writer Yanagida Kunio (1875-1962), who noted that in some areas in Japan the Kappa is known as Enko, the term for “monkey.” In Geishu City, Hiroshima Prefecture, locals say a monster named Kawazaru (“River Monkey”) lives in the waters there, attacking both men and animals. Said to possess the might of 100 men, its power evaporates if the water atop its saucer-like head is spilled. It is possible that Kappa may be a distorted form of Kapi, which means “monkey” in Sanskrit.Most cryptozoologists, however, believe that the legendary Kappa is actually the rare Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) or hanzaki, a huge and aggressive amphibian with powerful jaws for seizing prey. It can grow to a length of five feet, and although primarily a fish-eater, it is quite capable of catching and devouring small children. It is a long-lived species, with the captive record being an individual that lived in the Natura Artis Magistra, the Netherlands, for 52 years. In the wild they may live for nearly 80 years. The second largest salamander in the world, the hanzaki is only surpassed in size by the closely-related Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) which may reach an astonishing six feet in length!
Encyclopedia Brittanica online, “Kappa,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/311800/kappa
Encyclopedia Mythica, “Kappa,” http://www.pantheon.org/articles/k/kappa.html
Foster, Michael Dylan (1998) The Metamorphosis of the Kappa: Transformation of Folklore to Folklorism in Japan, Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.
Godchecker.com, “Kappa: Water Demons,” http://www.godchecker.com/pantheon/japanese-mythology.php?deity=kappa
“The History and Significance of the Kappa in Japanese Mythology,” http://www.bukisa.com/articles/162589_the-history-and-significance-of-the-kappa-in-japanese-mythology#ixzz1tMoPQnbX
OnMark Productions, “Kappa: River Imp, Water Sprite,” http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/kappa.shtml
The Sword in the Stone, “Japanese Giant Salamander,” http://jacksword.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/japanese-giant-salamander/
Wikipedia, “Kappa,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kappa