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Kappa: The Japanese River Monster

truefaith7 is interested in East Asian art, world history, and cats.

A drawing of a kappa that was supposedly captured on a beach in Japan in 1836. According to records from the time, this kappa was 1 meter long, weighed 45 kg and had a bent neck and protruding chest.

A drawing of a kappa that was supposedly captured on a beach in Japan in 1836. According to records from the time, this kappa was 1 meter long, weighed 45 kg and had a bent neck and protruding chest.

The kappa is one of Japan's most famous monsters. It is a water imp that, according to centuries-old Japanese folktales and legends, lives in the rivers and ponds of Japan. It is both a deadly monster and a troublesome prankster. Kappa were feared by the Japanese people in the old days, but they are mostly viewed as a cute, cuddly type of monster nowadays.

How did the kappa become such a feared monster in ancient Japan? And how did it become such a laughable and even lovable creature in modern-day Japan? Does the kappa really exist? That's what we'll explore in this article. So read on, enjoy, and learn more about this fascinating creature from the bottoms of the rivers of Japan!

What Is a Kappa?

First and foremost, kappa are creatures of legend much like the Loch Ness Monster. If you're planning to visit Japan and you're afraid you might run into a kappa while you're there, don't worry! It's not very likely to happen!

A kappa is a type of water imp that is said to be human-like in form and have the same height as a child. There have been many depictions of the kappa's appearance, ranging from monkey-like to having a beak and turtle-like shell! However, most generally depict the kappa as having a reptilian appearance.

A kappa can swim like a fish thanks to amphibian features such as webbed feet and hands. Most importantly of all, a kappa is said to have a saucer-shaped membrane on top of its head that stays filled with water. This is supposed to be its life source. If the water dries from this membrane, the kappa will die unless it gets back into the water very quickly or water is poured into the membrane by a human.

Kappa love to eat two different things: human children and cucumbers.

They are said to be most common in the waters of Saga Prefecture, but legends and folktales have been told all over Japan about kappa living in various rivers, ponds, and lakes across the country.

Kappa are also particularly good at sumo wrestling. They are much stronger than they look and love to wrestle. They would be happy to fight (and possibly defeat) the greatest sumo wrestler or samurai. That is, unless they use a very common trick described below.

Kappa are regarded as a 'suijin' (水神, or 'water god') in Shinto.

In addition to the scaly kappa are the kappa's hairy cousin known as 'hyōsube' (ひょうすべ) and his turtle-like cousin in Kōchi Prefecture known as the 'shibaten' or 'shibatengu' (シバテン, 芝天狗). A little about the hyosube will be explained below, but it is not nearly as polite or silly as the kappa!

The kappa is associated with drowning in many parts of Japan and tales of the kappa have served as warnings to children about going swimming alone in dangerous spots, as well as what lies beneath the waters.

Depiction of a kappa by ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

Depiction of a kappa by ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

Origins of the Kappa

The origins of the kappa are relatively unknown, but there are a number of possibilities.

One possible origin of the kappa tales is from a very sad tradition in ancient Japan. Poor families who had newborn babies often threw these babies into the rivers when they could not afford to take care of them. It is very possible that adults told their children the kappa stories to keep them from going near the rivers and seeing the dead babies.

Another possibility is that the kappa could be a variation of Sha Wujing ("Sandy", or "Sangojo"/"Sagojō" in Japanese) from the classical Chinese novel "Journey to the West." There are some similiarities between the two and it's quite possible that Sandy could've been changed into the Japanese kappa at some point.

Finally, another possible origin of the kappa is the Portuguese monks who landed in Japan in the 16th century. The monks had shaved pates and wore long hooded robes which resembled the turtleshell depicted on many kappa. Also, the word 'capa' is the Portuguese word for a monk's habit and this could have carried over to the Japanese language.

One thing is for sure, and that is that tales of the kappa were—and still are—told to children to warn them of the dangers that lurk in rivers.

Ukiyo-e print of the kappa Suiko by Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788).

Ukiyo-e print of the kappa Suiko by Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788).

The Kappa and the World Around Them

Kappa are something of an enigma as they are regarded in different ways in Japanese society.

First and foremost, they are regarded as troublemakers. They are said to be "peeping Toms" that watched women bathe in the rivers and peek up their kimonos back in the old days. They are also scavengers that raid nearby gardens. Also, kappa are said to fart very loudly and rudely.

On the other side of the coin, kappa are monsters that lurk in the rivers and ponds of Japan and drown people after luring them near the water. Kappa love eating children and tales of kappa kidnapping and devouring children have kept many a child from going swimming in the rivers alone over the centuries! In many tales, kappa kill their victims for the sole purpose of eating their livers or their shirikodama (尻子玉), which was a magical ball that many ancient Japanese believed resided in a person's anus. The kappa would have to get the shirikodama out first before taking out the liver.

In many legends, kappa are said to have kidnapped and brutally ravished women. Some of these women bore the kappa's child, which was usually buried after birth.

In other legends, kappa have also been portrayed as attacking and drowning animals, in particular horses, with which kappa are said to share a strong link. However, in many of the legends, kappa are caught trying to drown the horses and usually apologize for the act, promising never to do it again.

Despite being a troublemaker and a deadly monster, kappa are very interested in humankind. They observe humans and have learned to speak Japanese fluently. Many have become friends with humans in the ancient legends, especially if they get a cucumber or some other gift in return. They are very knowledgeable about medicine and agriculture and will help humans with chores such as irrigating fields, setting broken bones and manual labor. They will often do this work in exchange for a cucumber or, if they are indebted to the person, nothing at all.

How Does One Kill or Scare a Kappa?

There is one simple technique to use on a kappa to literally stop it in its tracks and that is to bow to it! Kappa are very polite and will stop to return the bow. This will cause the water to drain from the membrane on their head and paralyze them instantly. A potential victim can then leave the kappa to die or refill the water in its membrane. If a person does this, the kappa will be forever grateful and indebted to the person for life.

Kappa are also supposed to be afraid of fire and loud noises. To this very day, many villages in Japan hold festivals where fireworks are lit to scare off the scaly beasts!

The ukiyo-e masters Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) have depicted some very amusing methods of catching and repelling kappa in two of their woodblock prints!

Ukiyo-e print by Sekien of the hyosube Seukera  peeking in a window .

Ukiyo-e print by Sekien of the hyosube Seukera peeking in a window .

The Hyosube

The hyosube is the kappa's hairy cousin. Both are identical in every way in terms of anatomy and physical attributes. However, there are a couple of important distinctions between the two. The hyosube is very hairy and whereas the kappa tends to stay outdoors, the hyosube loves to sneak in peoples' homes for a bath! Since he's such a hairy critter, the hyosube inevitably leaves hairs all over the bathroom which, according to the Japanese folktales, have been deadly for the people who find them.

In the Yu-Gi-Oh series, the hyosube is one of the chosen 47 spirit warriors and a boss in the kappa clan.

Kappa Video on YouTube

A kappa statue on the Tanushimaru railway station platform in Fukuoka, Japan.

A kappa statue on the Tanushimaru railway station platform in Fukuoka, Japan.

The Kappa in Modern-Day Japanese Society

The kappa is still a creature of legend and fable in modern-day Japan. However, most people view it as a silly, loveable kind of monster instead of the fearsome monster it once was. Kappa signs placed near riverbanks warning children to stay away can still be found in many villages in Japan. Kappa statues can be found in many locations across Japan. Kappa kokeshi dolls, pendants, backpacks, lunchboxes, and more have become popular merchandise over the past few decades.

In 1927, the Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa released his novel Kappa. Sadly enough, this would be one of his final novels as he comitted suicide just a few months or so after publication of this novel. In Kappa, we read about one man's journey from a Japanese mental ward into "Kappaland." In Kappaland, he encounters the kappa and as he learns more about this intriguing race, is both surprised and shocked by their social norms and culture. "Kappa" is a satire of Japanese society and quite possibly a manifestation of the emotional and mental despair Akutagawa was experiencing as he wrote this novel.

Of course, the kappa has been a principal character in many other books, movies, TV shows, and more in modern-day Japan and beyond. Many believe that the kappa was a major influence on the cartoon series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In an episode of the anime series Tenchi Universe, two of the series's principal characters get to spend some quality time as kappa after they are transformed into kappa by a goblin. Also, in the series Urusei Yatsura, Ataru is kidnapped by kappa and held captive at the bottom of the lake while his alien "wife" Lum worries that he has drowned.

The kappa has also had a sushi dish named after it! The kappamaki is a sushi roll stuffed with none other than the kappa's second favorite food: cucumber slices.

Does the Kappa Really Exist?

As of yet, no one really knows if a kappa species really exists in Japan. There have been sightings over the centuries and these sightings form the basis for many of the folktales and legends about the kappa. However, it's not known if the creature spotted is truly a kappa or something else, such as an eel, turtle, or a salamander (i.e. the Japanese giant salamander).

Some 40 years ago in the city of Imari in Saga Prefecture, the mummified remains of what is supposedly a kappa were found inside a sake manufacturing facility. Those remains are still on display today.

A temple near Tokyo has what is believed to be a kappa's foot. However, in 2011, American scientists working with a team from the US TV show Destination Truth on the Syfy TV network determined that the foot does not belong to an amphibious creature at all.

Most likely, the kappa will remain in the realm of Bigfoot, the Yeti, and other creatures around the world whose existence cannot be verified, but many believe is out there somewhere.


Shubhdeep on March 09, 2020:

What ever i told is not true

And i know because i am a scientest

truefaith7 (author) from USA on October 13, 2017:

Glad to hear it! :-)

nichi on October 13, 2017:

it was really interesting and helpfull

nathan on September 04, 2015:

I know this is old but im curious if any is aware of sightings outside of japan? Im from Indiana USA and believe ive seen a kapa before. When i was a kid i was alone out walking by our lake, i was on my way back to the house and saw some ripples on the water out of the corner of my eye. I looked left and saw what i have described over the years as a ninja turtle. I know that sounds stupid but its the best way i can describe it. It had green skin, a rounded turtley looking face, black eyes i believe and a human enough hand that it could motion for me to come closer. I stood there frozen for a moment, trying to make sense of what i was looking at. I shook my head "no" to it (in response to its hand gesturing) and very slowly drew up my bb gun on it but did not fire. We sat there for what had to be a few seconds just looking at eachpther, then it plopped below the water and i ran to the house. I've never seen anything like that before or since.

truefaith7 (author) from USA on February 04, 2012:

Thanks for checking out my other hubs, and I have returned the favor!;-) I'm getting more and more interested in that movie now! The kappa does have a very noble, respectful, and honorable side to it, and I guess that aspect of its character is reflective of both humanity and Japanese society as a whole.

dzoing on February 03, 2012:

My pleasure! I do recommend checking out the movie. Without giving anything away, I think I can say you'll find it illustrates the more lovable aspects of the kappa which you mention. I guess, as with many folktales, the story of the kappa actually expresses a whole lot about humanity. Will be checking out your other hubs, too!

truefaith7 (author) from USA on February 03, 2012:

Thank you for your feedback! Glad you enjoyed the hub! I haven't seen that film yet, but will be sure to give it a look. The kappa is definitely a fascinating creature. Despite some of the terrifying things it did in the folktales, one can't help but be fascinated with it and the legends and culture surrounding it. Thanks again and take care!

dzoing on February 02, 2012:

I discovered the kappa when I watched the lovely animated film 'Summer Days with Coo' and fell in love with this creature. I just loved your hub, it's so detailed but concise at the same time, I learned a lot! Thank you.

truefaith7 (author) from USA on February 02, 2012:

Thanks guys. I appreciate the feedback and glad you enjoyed the hub! You know, I was thinking of Gollum too when I was making this hub. There's a lot of similarities between the two, and the similarities are very uncanny. It makes you wonder if Tolkien ever learned about the kappa...

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on February 02, 2012:

Awesome Hub. For some reason, while I was reading this, I was reminded of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. It would be cool, but also terrifying if it really existed. Voted up.

Janelle from Houston on February 02, 2012:

Interesting hub! I had never heard of this before.