Crystal Morey: The Japanese Kappas
By Crystal Morey
Kappas are definitely one of the oddest indigenous Japanese creatures. They are depicted simultaneously as both sinister and unerringly cute. They are typically the size of a large child and appear to be a cross between a chimpanzee and a turtle. Their bodies usually resemble a monkey or upright frog with a turtle like head (often with a beak).
They have turtle shells and webbed hands and feet and usually appear green, yellow or blueish in color. (Some say they can change color like a chameleon.) They all have a bowl-like depression on the top of their heads filled with water and surrounded by scraggy hair. The water provides the Kappa life-source on land and if it is spilled the Kappa must return to the river or he will die.
Kappas love to eat cucumbers (cucumber sushi rolls – Kappa maki are named after them) and small children. They are honorable creatures and if bowed to, they will always return a bow. Japanese parents tell their children to bow low to a kappa if they see one, because the kappa will always return the bow, causing the water to spill from it’s head thus rendering it powerless.
Kappas are considered great practical jokers, the often pass loud gas and peer up women’s robes. Their mischief however tends towards the malevolent. They are voracious eaters and while cucumbers and children are their favorite delicacy, they will also attack full grown humans, cows, horses and other livestock which they consume by sucking their life force “shirikodoma” (essentially the heart, liver and internal organs) out through the victim’s anus. They are not considered completely dangerous, just creatures to be treated with caution.
They love playing games and wrestling and it is possible to best a Kappa in sport and trick him into helping you with farm work or allowing your family to bathe in the river unmolested. They also are quickly won over with cucumbers so mothers often enscribe their children’s names onto cucumbers and throw them into the river as a gift to the Kappas in hopes that they will let their children pass safely. Kappas are still quite prevalent in present day Japanese culture, you see them in signs and advertisements everywhere.
There are rivers still with signs warning bathers to beware of Kappas and there is a whole area in Tokyo called Kappabashi with tons of statues and signs. Kooky. The kappa images I’ve included are snippets from the upcoming Japanese Mythological Creatures book due out this fall…