Kappa, a Japanese Mythological Water Monster

Stories of monsters and mythical creatures are passed on from generation to generation. These stories are elements of folklore, which are inherent in cultures all over the world. Depending on which side of the world you’re looking at, you’ll get very different monsters, all perfectly suited to the environment of the country that it originates from. Countries that have different bodies of water have stories about mermaids and sea monsters, while lands filled with tall mountains and flourishing trees speak of the rumor of the yeti. But what about those with marshy swamps?

Japan is famous for their mythology being so detailed and amusingly peculiar. They have an entire branch dedicated to the elementals and monsters that lurk their land; some of them hardly known of, others being superstars in household folklore and children’s stories. These bewitched and fascinating entities are referred to as yokai, some of them as deities. One of the most famous (and loved) yokai is the Kappa.

A Mythological Creature from Japan: The Kappa Monster

The word “kappa”, when translated into English, means river child. The etymology behind this lies in the words “kawa” which means river in Japanese, and “wappa”, stemming from “warawa” which means child. The kappa also goes by its other names, such as “kawatora” or river tiger, “komaihiki”, which means horse puller, and “kawataro”. The kappa goes by many different names throughout Japan, varying per region. Examples of these names include mizuchi, kawaso, dancame, and gawappa.

In terms of Shinto beliefs, the impish kappa belongs to the category of “sujin”, which is a water deity. Here’s how it works: when the water deity’s temporary animal form or “yorishiro” that it uses to present itself attracts a “kami”, which is a god or spirit, you combine that kami (spirit) with a yorishiro (something that it can physically occupy), and you have the kappa; a yokai and water deity. As for Japanese Buddhism, they don’t take as sweetly to them. Kappa is described in a little more impish and lecherous sense than Shintoism does, comparing them similarly to ogres.  

Don’t be fooled by their rank as being a sujin by Shinto beliefs – these demons (yes, they’re also considered demons) are known to cause quite a pranking stir when they want to. There were also more serious instances, though less often, that they proved to be murderous monsters. Though they may be considered as cute and lovable in today’s modern world, people were terrified of the kappa during Japan’s ancient times.

What Does a Kappa Monster Look Like?

Kappas are reptilian creatures that take the size of a child. They also have the same form as humans, but with different features. You could say they look like a cross between a turtle, duck, frog, and monkey. Some depict them as having beaks and shells, but they are more commonly portrayed as having green, blue, or yellow scaly skin. The limbs of some kappa are illustrated to be like that of a monkey. Others say that its upper limbs are completely connected right through their torso, with their hands and feet being webbed.

Kappa have a notable flattened bald spot on the top of their heads, and this part is known as a plate. It’s usually circled with straight, long hair that droops downwards. That plate is supposedly always wet, and is a vital part of their physical portrayal, as it is their life force; a representation of the aquatic environment they are from. They are incredibly capable of swimming and are known to possess a fishy scent.

Because a kappa is naturally an aquatic creature, when a kappa ventures to land, it uses a metal helmet to protect its reservoir of water on its head. This is because the water on top of its head gives it power and energy, and if it were to be dried out or wounded, the kappa would be rendered incapable. If the kappa’s plate were to be injured or parched for too long, it could also serve as its death sentence.

How Kappa Monsters Behave

They aren’t called demons and imps for nothing. Kappa monsters are naughty by nature, and would probably fart aloud, or look up the underside of the kimono of a woman. Then again, they are known to love eating children, so the range of naughtiness to downright evilness varies, perhaps depending on your luck and the morality of the kappa you encounter.

Weakness As A Means for Escape

Strangely enough, kappa are very polite creatures, and highly value proper decorum. It is impossible for them to break their oaths once they are made, and humans have found ways to manipulate this. Despite their reputation for participating in horrible crimes against humanity, they cannot help but bow back if they are bowed to. This is used as a tactic to escape their grip on you, as the water from their plates spills out onto the floor. Because this is the source of their energy and life, they will remain still in that position until its plate is reloaded with water from the area of where it lives – no other river will do.

Those who are highly skilled in the art of wrestling could try to go up against the kappa’s proposition to wrestle. This is another way for the human to get it to spill the water that’s on top of its head. Then you can also rip off its lanky limbs, which it would do anything to get back in return. If you just want to avoid them in general, they don’t like being around ginger, iron, and sesame – so keep some in your pocket. Or, you can throw them some cucumbers to show you’re friendly and mean no harm.

The Kappa Monster’s Favorite Food: Cucumber

The kappa’s love for food sometimes takes over the way they behave around humans, befriending them to get a bite of their favorite foods. They’ll even do favors for them, and farmers have used them for agricultural purposes (land irrigation) and fishing. They are known to love natto (fermented soybeans), buckwheat noodles (soba), winter squash, and Japanese eggplant (nasu). These are all great meal options for the kappa, but cucumber tops their list of favorite food - even more venerated than human flesh.

This is such a known fact, that mothers and fathers of kids who are about to swim in lakes and rivers go out of their way to get cucumbers, inscribe their children’s names on it, and throw it in the water to distract the kappa, and let them know which children not to bother in exchange for the cucumber.

Not all kappa are bad – some of them are truly benevolent, and have been worshiped because of their unforgettably good acts. During earlier periods, they bequeathed their advanced understanding of medicine to people, thus being a big help, especially in the aspect of the bone setting. The kappa monster could have been the pioneer of chiropractors.

Where Can Kappa Monsters Be Found?

Kappa can be found all over Japan, but their presence is known to be most prominent in the Prefecture of Saga. Kappa don’t necessarily need air; they can live both underwater and on land but seem to be more comfortable underwater. Some accounts say they can be found spending their year submerged all throughout spring (March, April, May) and summer (July, August). As the cold draws near during fall, they migrate to the mountains, and turn into mountain gods, known in Japanese as “yama-no-kami”.

Is the Kappa Monster Real?

Though they may be mistaken for the Japanese giant salamander, the kappa monster remains a mystery and an aspect of mythology, along with the rest of the yokai. There’s also the possibility that it could be mistaken for a Japanese river otter. Though it is currently extinct, it could be a viable explanation for a kappa sighting, as they have the physical capabilities to look like a child standing upright.

What’s interesting, though, is that there are concrete places that people say they are likely to appear, such as Kappabuchi in Tono, Iwate Prefecture. Legend has it that there was a kappa who went out of its way to end a fire that was burning a Buddhist temple. As for proof, rumor (and tradition) has it that there is an actual Kappa arm that is mummified and enshrined in the Sogenji Buddhist temple.

The Origin Story of the Kappa Monster

There isn’t any specific story that you could attach to how the kappa monster came to be, as there are several of them or at least several explanations of why these creatures are called kappa. One of them goes back to when the Portuguese were the only foreigners who were trading with the Japanese. The Portuguese monks had only the top portions of their heads shaved, and wore long robes, and this whole outfit was called a “capa”. Somehow, along with the way, perhaps someone mistook a monk in a capa, sleeping in the woods, as a kappa monster.

Another legend talks about how families who could no longer afford more children would throw their newborns into the river. Because other children would often play there, there would be a possibility that they would discover the fetuses. To cover up their own tracks, and to protect their children’s innocence, they would weave tales of a yokai lurking in the river.

In general, really, stories about the kappa monster being as violent as eating flesh are to ward off any kids who think it would be a fun idea to go swimming during odd hours in the lake. It’s an easy precautionary measure to make, especially if you have kids who won’t take no for an answer and must give in to their curiosity.

A Movie That Features the Kappa Monster

There has been only one movie so far that details a kappa – and it paints them in a not so friendly way. The movie, “Death Kappa”, was released last 2010, and was directed by Tomo’o Haraguchi. The movie talks about how soldiers were being biologically reengineered to become amphibious.

There are twists and turns in the movie involving an atomic bomb, murders, and kappa – and it all got a rating of 4.5/10. Reviewers say that the acting isn’t as good as they’d hoped it would be, and the costumes are very obviously fake. It’s still worth watching, as it casts some likeliness to Godzilla, with an unexpected comical twist - at how poorly the movie was made.

A Quote on Kappa

There's’ a famous saying in Japanese involving the kappa; and it goes, “kappa no kawa nagare”, which means “a kappa drowning in a river”. Kappa is excellent swimmers and technically cannot drown, so the quote was made to show that even those who are most skilled at their study or craft fail occasionally.

Don’t be worried you’ll encounter a kappa in your visits to Japan – they’re just about as real as a unicorn… Or are they? Perhaps that’s why they remain mysterious mythological creatures – you’ll never really know if they do, truly exist.