Although commonly depicted as cheeky little tykes in modern Japanese societies, endorsing everything from ramen and sushi chains, to popping up in cutesy computer games, the Kappa in Japanese folklore are a creepy and oftentimes dangerous creature, who dragged unsuspecting victims to the bed of the rivers where they live, for either an untimely death or some gruesome torture.
Believed to inhabit the rivers throughout Japan, Kappa are a strangely human like creature, who walk upright, have forward facing eyes and five digits on each hand and foot. They are amphibian however, so they are well adapted to life in the water, with scaly skin, webbed feet and hands, a tortoise like shell and a sharp beak for catching fish. One of their strangest features however is a ring of raggedy hair surrounding a small indentation on their crown, this small bowl is known as the 皿 (Sara – a literal meaning of bowl or plate) and allows the Kappa to venture inland, as if it filled with the water from their lake or river, they can walk on land freely, but if the water spills out, they will freeze to the spot or in some cases die, unless the bowl is refilled.
Seen as mischievous, it is not surprising they resemble Japanese children in stature, as they can play some rather childish pranks, such as passing wind extremely loudly to frighten those passing by, or sneaking a peek up the kimono of unsuspecting women (a task made even easier with the invention of short skirts). But their behavior can become malicious and evil, as they have been known to kidnap children, purposefully drown people and even rape and impregnate women, who give birth to vile monsters.
Curious about human society, Kappa have copied some of the mainstays of Japanese culture, including the national sport of sumo, which they have mastered. Because of their devotion to Japanese decorum, one of the only ways to defeat a Kappa is to appeal to his awareness of Japanese manners; for example, if a Kappa is caught in the act of attempting to drown livestock, it is not uncommon for it to apologize, in some cases you may even be given a formally written letter. What’s more, if you are approached by one and wish to escape, simply bow a hello and the Kappa will be obliged to bow in return, tipping the water from it’s Sara and leaving it defenseless; you can either run to safety, or refill the bowl on its head and gain a Kappa servant for the rest of your days.
The Kappa are also keen to help out humans voluntarily, in return for a treat or two they would not be able to come by in the watery homes; such as eggplant, natto, soba noodles but especially cucumbers. Kappa are so obsessed with cucumber, there is a “Kappa” sushi (as well as a Kappa Sushi restaurant chain), which is simply a strip of cucumber wrapped in rice and dried seaweed. It was also once a custom for parents to carve the name of their child into a cucumber and toss it into a river, hopefully winning the favor of the Kappa and securing their child’s safety.
Believe it or not, these Kappa who have become an aid to humans have taught the Japanese a few tricks in return, including an in-depth knowledge of natural medicine and it is also believed that they taught the art of chiropractic therapy to humans.
Today, it is still common to see a poster of Kappa near a body of water, dragging unsuspecting victims into their river, where their strength and wrestling skills make it virtually impossible for the person to escape. Used mainly as a deterrent to keep children playing near the water’s edge, Kappa are also a personification of currents, a stark warning of an unseen enemy that will grapple you away from the shore and to certain death.