Let’s start with definitions. A kappa, which translates as water child, is an impish type of yōkai demon. So the next question would probably be “What the hell is a yōkai?”
Well, yōkai is an umbrella term used for a class of supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore.
The kappa demon certainly has most, if not all of the characteristics usually attributed to members of the yōkai family. Like most yōkai, the kappa possesses certain animal features, but it still has a humanoid body shape–also not unusual in yōkai.
The kappa has green, scaly skin, webbed hands and feet, and they carry a turtle shell on their back. So kind of like an ancient Japanese Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. But not nearly as likeable, and they also have a beak-like mouth.
Now let’s get to their more peculiar features. The sara is a good contender in this category–an indentation on the top of their heads, shaped like a bowl and said to contain water or a magical liquid, depending on who you believe, and it’s the source of a kappa’s power. Another trait in this category is the fact that kappa have three anuses, which allows them to pass three times as much gas as a human. This has even found its way into Japanese language in the form of a proverb: he no kappa or kappa no he. As easy as a kappa’s fart.
These days, kappa have been redeemed, and are portrayed as cute beasties on popular merchandise, their history is somewhat darker. Sightings of them are still reported now and then in more rural regions of Japan. And you can find signs near bodies of water to alert unsuspecting passersby to the presence of kappa.
As you can guess from their appearance, especially the webbed appendages, they live in the water but they can come ashore. Usually to play tricks or work some kind of mischief, but they are also known to drown people or animals. They’re strong enough to pull even a horse into the water and drown them, but especially children playing unattended in or near water were at risk.
Now, if you listened to episode three, you’ll remember that some sources stated that the kappa legend evolved from the mizuchi dragon, who had a distinct dislike for gourds (probably because people used the blasted things to trick them). One of the reasons to assume that kappa are descendants of cousins of the mizuchi, is that they share their dislike of gourds.
The kappa’s aversion to gourds is interesting in that it is documented they love many fruits of the melon grouping except gourds. Possibly because of the incident with the warrior who tricked the mizuchi. Though it could also be because gourds represent a draining of water.
While they dislike gourds or calabashes, kappa are very fond of cucumber. So much so that a cucumber filled sushi roll was named after them: kappamaki. People were so convinced of this preference for cucumber, that they used to make offerings of them to their local neighbourhood kappa. By writing the names of their loved ones on the cucumber and letting it float away on the water, they hoped to appease the kappa to leave their family members unharmed.
Kappa, along with all water spirits, have a strong aversion to iron as well. And two of the regional variations of names for kappa are mizushi and mizuchi. Coincidence, perhaps? Another possibility of this evolution lies in that the kappa is an amalgamation of several animals, much like Japanese dragons.
Danger in the Waters
So what happens once a kappa drags their victim into the water? Some say they drink their victims’ blood or devour the liver. But here’s where things turn gross. You have been warned. Most stories I’ve found describe how kappa extract a mystical ball called the shirikodama from the anus of their victims, either because it contains the person’s soul, or because the shirikodama is in the way and they’re removing it to get to the liver. But the anus seems like an impractical route to the liver, if you ask me. Further possible connection between the kappa and dragons is in their taking of the liver and the shirikodama, which is similar in offerings given to a snake-like dragon deity.
OK, so a kappa has set its sights on us and it wants to drag us into the water. Now what do we do?
Your best chance would be to take a bow. Apparently they are obsessed with manners, as you’d expect from a green water demon. They’d feel obliged to return your gesture, spilling the liquid from their sara. This causes them to weaken. If the problem isn’t remedied, they could even die. If you pour fresh water into the bowl, they’re bound to serve you.
A second option involves their arms. Some say the arms are attached to one another inside the torso and can be slid back and forth. Others say they’re merely easy to detach. Get your hands on one, and the kappa will negotiate a bargain in return for his limbs. Takes the phrase twisting someone’s arm to a whole new level, doesn’t it?
They also like to wrestle and can be tempted to a match of sumo, but again, your best shot will be in making them spill the water from their sara. Otherwise, they’re so strong it would be all but impossible to defeat them.
Gourds and Gourds
I also found one mention of a woman playing the same gourd trick on a kappa that people used to outwit mizuchi dragons. Her father had agreed to give her in marriage to the kappa, provided that the kappa irrigate his land, but the daughter floated a gourd in the water and challenged the kappa to sink it. Of course he, like his supposed dragon ancestors, failed. This allowed the woman to escape the arranged marriage.
Of course, kappa weren’t all bad. If you could befriend them, they were capable of a ton of useful stuff, like irrigating farmland.
Some say the Kappabashi, a street in Tokyo which is mostly renowned for its kitchenware these days, was named in honour of one kappa who proved particularly helpful. In the Edo period, when this area consisted mostly of farmland, it was prone to flooding. A local merchant called Kihachi tried to commission the construction of a canal to prevent the floods in the late 1700s, but the project turned out to be too expensive. When he was about to give up, a kappa arrived.
This kappa was no stranger to Kihachi. He’d once saved the creature years before. The kappa assisted in the construction and the canal was finished. The people ended up building a temple to honor the kappa. The temple still stands, and people still bring offerings of cucumber there, to show their respect to the kappa they owe so much to.
OK, some kappa were assholes, and some were probably pretty decent. Reminds me of humans, but we’re nowhere near as fascinating, are we?
Want Some More Kappa?
- This episode of Uncanny Japan, where host Theresa Matsuura tells you about the time she first came across a kappa.
- Kappa, a 1927 novella by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
- Summer Days with Coo, a 2007 Japanese animated film based on two novels by Masao Kogure
- Patient X, a novel by David Peace, about the life and work of the aforementioned Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
- In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, the four heroes are mistaken for kappa when they travel through time to feudal Japan
- And last but not least, we have Sarazanmai, an anime series in which the characters are turned into kappa and end up collecting shirikodama (that still grosses me out, by the way)
OK, so much for our first side quest of the season. I’m sure there will be others. If you know of other stories or series featuring kappa, do share, or if you’ve seen or read one of the ones we shared above, let us know what you think.
Until next time,