Monday, January 27, 2020

Kappa - Water Spirit of Japanese folk lore

Karenjc on Wikipedia

Kappa are small water creatures, about the size of a child, and anthropomorphic in figure. Although generally human like, the kappa has a turtle like carapace on its back, webbed hands, slimy or scaly skin, and a small open topped cavity {similar to a bowl} in its head. Should the liquid fall out of the cavity in the kappa’s head the kappa will lose much of his strength and power. Thus, when the kappa leaves the water, they sometimes put a metal cap over their head to keep the water from spilling out, not always however, as there are many stories about tricking a kappa into bowing so that it will become weak. Early kappa, and certainly related creatures in some regions appeared as monkeys and otters, rather than turtles. 

As with many of the yokai in Japan the kappa is a complex figure. Although they are typically viewed as malicious water creatures, they can be given offerings and enshrined as well. There is a shrine known as There is a shrine where the kappa is left offerings of cucumbers {The kappa’s faviorate food}. According to the shrine’s website; 

"Kappa is a Japanese Ancient/Unidentified Creature that has been believed in from ancient times to the present. Because he’s unidentified he’s been represented by many forms, but usually he has a green body with a bowl on his head, and a turtle like shell. The Japanese people love the kappa because of his adorable appearance. It’s also been believed that the kappa can bring families happiness and bless children. In some cases it’s a water kami.

Seisoku temple (kappa temple) has a pot that a grateful kappa gave to Osho, a priest who saved his life 300 years ago. You can listen to the mysterious sounds of the river when you put your ear to this pot. Please come and experience this mysterious sound. We'll be waiting. ("

Within this story the peasants had begun blaming the kappa for numerous crimes and attacked him with a stick. That’s when Kaunao of Sasashi-ji came along and told the people that they shouldn’t kill the creature. That night a knocking on the door woke Kazunao, when he answered he found the kappa. The kappa thanked him for rescuing him and gave him a pot in which one can hear the murmuring of flowing water. Kazunao awoke when the kappa left yet found the pot and realized the kappa had indeed visited him. (

Certain kappa, although not all, have more in common with the mountain kami than just their dual nature. Like the mountain kami who come down in the summer and return to the mountains for winter, some kappa appears to have wintered into the mountains. In this case the Kappa will go into the mountains in the winter and becomes mountain children {called yamado} or will travel with these children. They would travel about on roads and sometimes drill holes in the walls of new houses built along their trails. 

In Kyukshu the yamado appeared as a 10 year old child with long brown hair, and fine hair covering his whole body. In other places he had red hair and dog like ears. 

They would often sneak into people’s homes to bath, play tricks on cows and horses, and loved to sumo wrestle, much like the kappa of the water. They would often imitate sounds such as those of falling trees or rocks, songs, or event blasting dynamite. 

Of course, Kyushu Island is only one part of Japan, and so this notion can’t be extrapolated as a belief held by the whole of Japan. This does illustrate the challenge of trying to come to a concise definition of most creatures of Japanese lore, for there are a lot of regional variations to them. It is also worth noting, however, that the notion of the kappa dividing its time between mountains and water does exist elsewhere “spending autumn and winter as yama no kami or a a mamawaro and the spring and summer growing season as a mizu no kami or kawawaro” (Foster).  According to foster local kappa festivals imply that the kappa was once an important part of Japanese folk religion in many regions. 

In modern times the kappa has become a symbol for tourism, national identity, and a cute creature. To some extent then, people are attempting to capitalize on the kappa. This has been done for a long time. Families of doctors have claimed to have learned their secrets of setting bones from kappa, and so could also claim to have knowledge other doctors wouldn’t.  

Ishida Eiichiro drew parallels between the kappa and the water deities throughout Eurasia, specifically discussing the fact that water deities have a tendency to be connected with horses and afraid of iron. 

His study on water deities and their connection to horses and fear of iron runs nearly 170 pages, and so is longer than would make sense for this essay. Still, he makes some interesting points about the kappa in general. One of which is related to the notion that their attempts to lure horses into the water might have come from previous sacrifices of horses to the water. He points out, for example, that horses’ heads were cut off and thrown into the river as an offering for rain and rice. This draws a connection between agricultural kami, water kami, and horse sacrifice. 

The Dark Side of Kappa

 The kappa of lore isn’t always so gentle as much of the folklore already mentioned would suggest. Stories tend to paint them as extremely violent and dangerous. I will point out that there is a potential separation between folk belief and folk stories in this regard. After all, stories of violence and horror are popular, whereas stories of simple encounters in which nothing happens are less likely to be repeated. Thus, while the fact that scary stories about kappa dominated does indicate that people were afraid of them, it wouldn’t absolutely guarantee that’s what people primarily thought of them. Still kappa could be extremely dangerous. Stories are frequent of them damaging construction in the water, drowning people and horses, using their powers to seduce women, and pulling the livers out of people’s anuses.