Kappa (河童, lit. “river-child”), also known as kawatarō (川太郎, lit. “river-boy”) or kawako (川子, “river-children”), are supernatural amphibious creatures said to inhabit Japan’s waters. They are considered to be a transformation of a Shintō water deity (水神 Suijin). The description and the name of the kappa vary from region to region, and they are among the best known of the Japanese yōkai (妖怪, ghosts or demons).

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Edo-era sketch of a kappa

Appearance


They are believed to be of the size and shape of a young teenager, with a cat-like face featuring a snout; their hair is bobbed, and a saucer-like depression on top of their heads contains water. It is said that when the supply of water diminishes, the kappa‘s supernatural powers on land are enfeebled. Their slippery bodies are covered with bluish-green scales, emitting a fishy odour. They have webbed hands and feet. Kappa can easily be recognised by their ability to rotate arm and leg joints freely. Other variations are described as having beaks and wings or as resembling turtles.

Behaviour


In some local areas, kappa are said to help humans with rice-planting and irrigation, and they can be befriended in exchange for gifts, in particular food. Kappa are supposed to be fond of cucumbers, aubergines, nattō (fermented soybeans), pumpkins and soba (buckwheat noodles). Japanese sushi rolls with cucumbers are therefore called kappamaki (河童巻). Usually, kappa are regarded as mischievous, playing harmless and not so harmless pranks, preying on humans and animals, and raping women. Japanese children are told not to approach open water for fear kappa might lure them in and then drown them.

Legend also has it that they grab their victims either to drink their blood or to tear out their liver through the anus, to remove their shirikodama (尻子玉), a mythical ball said to contain the human soul. Kappa are partial to sumo, exhibiting great skills at wrestling. Despite their roguery, they are said to be very courteous: one way to escape from kappa is to bow profusely to them, a gesture they would likely return, spilling out the water on their head and thereby losing their powers. They are said to serve humans who refill their plate for eternity.

Kappa Gallery:


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Kappa displayed at the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura City, Chiba Prefecture

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Kappa by Toriyama Sekien (Kawasaki City Museum)

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Edo-era sketch of a kappa

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Description of a kappa by an unknown illustrator

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Kappa typology by an unknown illustrator

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More kappa types

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Kappa depicted by Hiraga Gennai

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How to keep kappa at bay; by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年; aka Taiso Yoshitoshi 大蘇芳年; 1839-1892)


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