Among the most famous and popular of yōkai
, the kappa
is a creature that ranges over the
whole of Japan, subject to a wide range of interpretations and kin to a whole tribe of strange
aquatic goblins of similar design. But this little water monster is still consistantly known for some
unique and often rather silly characteristics.
The first of these is the water-filled dish, or moist cap-like plate on top of its head. The water in the kappa's head provides it with its supernatural power, and if it dries up or spills the creature will lose its great strength or even become too weak to move1. The kappa is very proud of its hydropowered brawn, and often challenges human beings to bouts of sumō wrestling. Clever people, however, will trick the kappa into bowing or doing a handstand before the match, and when the water has spilled from the kappa's head the the now-weakened water imp always loses, which makes the boastful creature very upset2.
Another of the kappa's distinctive traits is its love of the humble cucumber. This affinity may have its origins in a custom of floating the year's first crop of cucumbers and eggplants (which kappa are also said to favor) into the local river in order to appease water gods and hungry ghosts. Swimming during auspicious days also puts you at risk of kappa attack, perhaps because the kappa will mistake you for these offerings3. In the Tōkyō area, at least, it was once said that if you write the name of your family on the first cucumber harvest and toss it into the river, it will stave off kappa attacks4. But cucumbers, or rather the smell of them, are more universally seen as inviting the predations of kappa, and almost everywhere in Japan people warn against eating these vegetables before swimming5. The ends of the cucumbers seem to be particularly attractive6.
But while the kappa may love cucumbers, it does not merely pose a danger to people it mistakes for vegetables. The kappa also shows interest in the backsides of humans and other large animals, often seeking to pull the nourishing guts out through its victim's backside and devour them7. Its favorite part of this is the human shirikodama, a fabled ball found near the anus and an item rivaling the cucumber on the kappa's list of favorite foods. The extraction of this element by kappa is said to cause the loosening of the anus in drowning victims8. Stories of kappa pulling horses9 and children10 into rivers are very common.
The kappa's affinity for things posterior is not always so malevolent. Its flatulence is known to be particularly noxious, and the kappa often passes gas in self defense when caught by fishermen11. It is sometimes thought to have three anuses with which to expell these fumes12. The creature itself is also notorious for its fishy stink13. And the predatory attraction that some kappa have to the human rump seems to be replaced with a naughty curiosity in others, as a common story features one of the imps hiding in a toilet so as to coyly stroke the buttocks of humans using it14.
Kappa that perpetrate mischief or injury, be it drowning, cucumber theft, yanking on horses, or unwelcome bathroom touching, frequently wind up either caught or with their arms cut off by angry humans. The creatures then must beg either for their lives or the return of their lost limbs, and in the process they agree both to cease causing wickedness and also to make reparations of some form. The kappa's apology may take the form of fish left on the family's doorstep every day15, but many kappa choose instead to instruct the people they have wronged in some secret medical art or formula, of which the imps seem to have much arcane knowledge16.
Although the kappa is a formidable creature, it is incongruously small, usually no bigger than a human child. It might have a bird-like beak or a pointed mouth, but sometimes it has a face like a monkey instead. It often sports a tortoise's shell on its back, and its slippery skin is blue or green or sometimes red. Its precious head dish is usually surrounded by a mop of bushy hair, and some kappa have hair growing all over their bodies. The kappa's limbs are long and sometimes stretchy, and its fingers and toes are of course webbed, all the better to slip away into the murky depths of its watery home17.
1. Mizuki 2001, pp. 59-60.
2. Mizuki, source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4.
3. source 5, source 6.
4. source 7.
5. source 8, source 9, source 10, source 11, source 12, source 13.
6. source 14, source 15.
7. source 16, source 17.
8. Mizuki, source 18.
9. source 19.
10. source 20.
11. Mizuki, source 21.
12. source 22.
13. Mizuki, source 23.
14. source 24, source 25.
15. source 26,
16. source 28, source 29, source 30, source 31, source 32, etc.
17. Mizuki, source 33, source 34, source 35, source 36, source 37, source 38, >source 39.