Kappa, the Water Devil

September 03, 2021 5 min read

kappa japan

Ever heard of this little evil creature that lives in the rivers of Japan?

Sneaky as well as ugly, the kappa is highly feared by the people. In spite of its small size and frail appearance, the kappa is a really frightening monster. It is said that he attracts children in rivers to drown them and eat them alive. However, today's Japan tends to make him seem cuter than he is, especially in the manga universe.

Let's have a closer look at this demon of Japanese folklore, its appearance, the most popular myths surrounding it and its place in the Japanese culture. As an exclusive bonus, we will also teach you 2 tricks for escaping from this water devil.

The kappa, a fearsome yokai

In the yokai family, the kappa probably is one of the most feared imaginary creatures of the Edo period, together with the Kitsune and the Tengu. Originally, these supernatural beings with magical powers came from animistic beliefs inherited from Shintoism.

In the past, yokai were used to justify unexplained phenomena. Humans feared evil spirits and invisible creatures that they thought were the cause of all of their troubles. Fear was also a way to protect oneself from the dangers of the environment.

representation of the kappa

Representation of the kappa. On the left, by Ai Tatebayashi. On the right, by Matthew Meyer.

In Japanese, Kappa means " River Child ". However, nothing innocent about this supernatural creature. It probably originates from stories that were told to children to prevent them from going in the water to avoid drowning (as swim floaties had not yet been invented) ...A bit traumatic though 😯.

Another hypothesis posits that kappa is an expression of the terror the Japanese had towards aquatic creatures that lived in murky waters such as giant salamanders 🦎.

At that time, many frightening beliefs surrounded the yokai. It was believed that the kappa was the bearer of great misfortunes. Therefore, in order to gain the trust of the river demon and to avoid his bad tricks, the Japanese people regularly made offerings to him. Besides, some Shinto shrines were dedicated to this water deity.

The kappa's eccentric appearance

But seriously, this anthropomorphic creature is not really spoiled by nature. In addition to its poor size, this pseudo-amphibian 🦎 has webbed hands and feet. Also, it has a bird beak 🐤 and sharp claws to better slash its prey. Its back is equipped with a turtle shell 🐢. Covered with scales, its skin varies from green to blue passing through yellow.

appearance of the kappa

On the left, illustration by Nathan J. Anderson.

Its great particularity is undoubtedly its hollow skull 🥥, surrounded by bushy hair. This water-filled bowl at the top of his head gives him fearsome power. If the kappa spills its container, it becomes particularly vulnerable. Without this water, he would be paralyzed. In addition to its unusual appearance, those who have escaped the kappa will certainly tell you about its horrible smell.

However, the kappa cultivates a great intelligence and a sense of politeness. Against all expectations, he respects Japanese traditions and customs. This is also his main weakness. Moreover, he appreciates martial arts as well as reflexive games like shōgi and medicine, which he willingly practices throughout his century of existence.

While some kappa may show gratitude in exchange for help and good manners, most of them are demonic. Like many yokai, this mythological monster that inhabits fresh waters such as rivers or ponds is characterized by its prankster nature. However, their pranks are not very pleasant.

child drowned by a kappa

Two kappa drowning a child in the river.

The kappa was known for terrorizing villages by stealing food, letting off farts and taking souls. During the Edo period, people were particularly afraid of this bloodthirsty monster that devoured humans in a very devious way. In fact, the kappa was known to lure passers-by towards rivers and streams in order to drown them.

How to get rid of a kappa?

Fortunately (or not), the kappa has two passions in life:

🖤 Devouring human livers

🖤 Eating cucumbers

So, if you happen to get attacked by this monster... give him a cucumber 🥒. Blinded by this delicacy, he will totally forget about you. The Japanese used to throw cucumbers into rivers to appease the kappa and turn them away from their children. These devils are so fond of these green vegetables that they plunder farmers' fields. Moreover, a famous Japanese dish is named after them: the Kappa maki. 

kappa and cucumber

Family of kappa eating cucumbers.

Another way to get rid of a kappa is to bow down in front of him like a sumo wrestler before a fight. This way, the kappa will do the same and spill the water he contains on his skull 💧 and thus lose his powers.

Myths and legends about the kappa

A funny way of tricking a Kappa

The kappa is the source of many popular legends in the archipelago. A funny anecdote tells that in order to get a kappa out of the water, you have to show it your backside as a bait. However, be careful not to have your entrails eaten!

The legend of the kappa and the samurai

One rainy evening, while walking along the Benkei moat, a samurai heard a young child's cries coming from the water. When he reached out to save the drowning boy, he felt the supernatural force pulling him into the water and realized that he had been tricked by a kappa. The samurai escaped while spreading the abominable smell of his attacker.

illustrated guide to the different types of kappa

Small illustrated guide of the different types of kappa.

Mythological or realistic creature?

To this day, many people in the Land of the Rising Sun still believe that the kappa really exists. Some Japanese will assure you that they have seen them. This is the case of Ryu Shirozaki, a fisherman who, on his way home, saw a group of strange looking children near the river. As he tried to approach them, the creatures plunged under the water. Returning to the same spot the next day, the fisherman found some very suspicious slimy footprints. Obviously, he thought of the Kappa monster. Later on, the police confirmed that it was an unknown substance.

The modern day Kappa

Nowadays, the kappa is less feared by the people. Far from the creepy superstitions of the past, its image is increasingly cute. So much so that they are turned into adorable stuffed animals for children. The kappa is no longer the evil monster it used to be in the Edo period.

This little water demon also has an important place in Japanese literature, manga and animation. In the series Kappa no Kaikata, the story of how to raise a baby kappa is told. Also, the movie Summer Days with Coo shows the friendship between a boy and an imp. In the cinema, we can note the appearance of the kappa in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, released in 2018. Video games are not on the sidelines, and are also inspired by this fantastic creature. We can mention Super Mario Bros when he turns into the turtle Koopa Troopa or Final Fantasy.

Japanese anime Summer Days with Coo

Image from the Japanese anime Summer Days with Coo (2007).

Besides, if you want to visit this mystical creature during your next trip to Japan, make sure to visit the Buddhist temple of Kappa-dera in Tokyo.

Frightening and vicious in the past, the Kappa has more than one trick up his sleeve today! It seems that the image of this mythical creature has evolved over time, making him look like an adorable little devil in modern-day anime. Will you succumb to the charm of the Japanese kappa?


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