Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Denizens of Japan #7: Kappa (Water Imps)

From the time I was a child, as far back as I remember, I've had a fascination with myths and fables. My parents would read me stories from Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm, and the like. In elementary school I read collections of Greek myths and the polychromatic Fairy Books (not as fruity as they sound). To my memory I didn't come across very many Japanese folk tales, although there are quite a few interesting creatures and myths to be found here. One of the most widely-recognized, I think, is the kappa.

Kappa (河童) are creatures that fall under the blanket term yokai (妖怪;ようかい), which means a ghost, demon, monster, or goblin. Kappa are sometimes categorized as fairies or sprites, but I think they can safely be called imps. Although their characteristics may vary, they are generally short, human or ape-like creatures with greenish, scaly skin and webbed feet and claws. They sometimes have duck or turtle-like beaks, as well, and wear lily-pad-like bowls on their head. Which is perfect camouflage, since they live in bodies of water.

Like many of the imp-like creatures found throughout the world, kappa are generally thought of as mischievous but not necessarily malevolent. I'm not exactly sure why this is, honestly. Although they do occasionally assist humans and are often only mild nuisances, they also have a reputation for drowning people. Apparently small children are their second favorite meal, behind cucumbers (Mmmmm, drowned child). Not only that, but apparently they suck their victims' entrails out through their rear ends. Oh those mischievous kappa!

As the stories go, the only sure-fire way to escape or conscript a kappa is to exploit its supernatural respect for etiquette by tricking it in to bowing to you. This can often be accomplished simply by bowing and then waiting for it to bow back before running away (sounds like this trick might work on a lot of Japanese people I know, too). Once the kappa bows, the water will spill out of the bowl-thing on its head, which as everyone knows, is the source of its strength. Once it's helpless, you can either beat a hasty retreat, or if you're feeling gutsy, refill its bowl-hat with water and hope that it will be honor-bound to become your life-long servant. I'd probably make it my butler (and we've got a sitcom).

In recent years, kappa have gotten some good PR. Today they are viewed more as friendly, often cute, turtle-like man-creatures rather than pranksters or murderers. They have appeared in various media sources throughout the years (I think I remember encountering one in the Harvest Moon video game series), and even have their own sushi chain! I'd say they've made a pretty good turn around. There are still some signs in Japan that caution against swimming in nearby water, however. You never know when a kappa might get you and suck your guts out your butt.

(Top Image Source: Wikipedia)

This edition of Denizens of Japan was written for and inspired by this month's Japan Blog Matsuri, graciously hosted this month by Mazikeen.


  1. I know kappa from their appearance as a hostile creature in the game "Guild Wars".

    Mythical creatures are interesting reflections of ancient cultures. Chances are that kappa were concocted as a way to explain parents murdering their own unwanted children by drowning them. That's not something I say as some sort of accusation of ancient Japanese culture. Unwanted children were murdered in all ancient cultures. The Romans, most notably, left their children in forests for the Gods to decide the fate of, or abandoned them in caves. Of course, such children always died of exposure, but the Gods were held responsible, not the parents.

    I'm sure many myths around the world were ways of covering up or obfuscating criminal behavior (including theft and rape), and I'm sure many people actually believed the mythical creatures and not humans carried out such acts.

  2. Ah, yes - I played Guild Wars for a few months. Has some interesting game mechanics.

    It's quite intriguing to see how ancient cultures explained the world around them through stories of gods and monsters. Often these kinds of myths were used to explain otherwise unexplainable natural events - weather, life, death...but you're right, a lot of them probably tie into social norms and practices of the times.

  3. In addition to bowing, you can also use a green cherry, or simply cast the "imp" spell to turn the tables on a kappa.

  4. Haha - good point. I forgot about that. Perhaps that's why I wanted to translate them as "imps" for some reason.

  5. They also have a fine line of athletic equipment

  6. Thank you for the great entry!

    My oldest son delights in telling unsuspecting people what the kappa do.

  7. This is a good post.

    I wanted to write about Kappa on my blog...but never got around to it.

    I believe the story of the Kappa evolved as a way for parents to keep their children from playing to close to rivers and lakes (where they might fall in and drown) by telling them that the Kappa would get them if they went to close.

    By the way, what part of America are you from?
    When did you come to Japan?

  8. Oh, typo! :(

    Of course I meant:

    "...keep their children from playing too close to rivers and lakes (where they might fall in and drown) by telling them that the Kappa would get them if they went too close.

  9. Hey, Tokyo, thanks! Yeah, that sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation for the Kappa myth.

    I'm originally from Long Island in NY, but moved to Maryland a few months before coming to work here in Japan. It's actually my third time here, but right now I'm about a year and 7 months in.

  10. Hey Blue Shoe, excellent entry! I rememebr when I first heard of the Kappa (I think I posted about it) A student had told me they were known to do some pretty weird things to people. So, I looked into it. found some interesting stuff, including they got a shout out from Rowlings herself in one of the Potter books (which I had forgotten about). Anyway, well done.

  11. I'm going to start packing cucumbers in my son's backpack. Don't want him to get eaten on the way to hoikuen :)

    My impression of kappa is the cute version, because that's all I see with the keychains and costumes here. Pretty cool to find out they have a more vicious past.

  12. Haha...yeah, that kind of cutification tends to happen over here, doesn't it? Off the top of my head, Namahage, the Akita demon, is another one. Used to have a cartoonish namahage keitai strap, before it broke...