Reading “Sanpei no Kappa”, a manga from Shigeru Mizuki I discovered a new Japanese legendary creature. The main character in this manga has a very good friend that is not human, he is a kappa that lives in a lake. I asked some Japanese friends and it happens to be a full mythology around kappas is not only in Shigeru Mizuki’s manga. Kappas are very popular in Japanese anime, tales and traditional literature. In the old times they were monstrous creatures but lately there is a tendency to make them more friendly.
This is a Kappa drawn in s.XIX . Image from Wikipedia.
Kappas (河童) are mythological creatures, and as Japanese folklore says they live in lakes, rivers and humid areas. It seems that there are some “evidences” that similar creatures could have been seen sometime and scientifically registered,
Kappas are represented as little humanoids with a frog-turtle-like extremities and face. Many times its drawn with a turtle caparison in its back. They use their extremities as fins so they can swim very fast.
But, the most interesting thing about kappas is that they have a cavity at the top of their heads that is full of water. The legend stated that kappas are very powerful, and all their energy comes from the water they have in their heads. If they stay outside the water for a long time it could happen that the water evaporates or whatever and then loose their power or even die.
Look at the water that is in the top of their heads.
Kappas are usually bad characters in traditional Japanese tales. There are also funny things about them, it seems they can expel big farts, they like to hide and look women while they are changing clothes or bathing (Kappa-voyeurism), they like to steal vegetables from Japanese farmers and the worst is that they kidnap children and women. One of their favorite food is children, a tasty dish that they can’t resist. Some other interpretations say that kappas absorb energy from their victims sucking their blood, and then eating their liver and organs. If you want to scare kappas, so they don’t come near your home or vegetable garden, you need to use fire; in many little Japanese villages they still use fireworks in some festivals in order to frighten bad spirits/creatures, kappas included among them.
Sanpei using his farting powers to beat the 100m swimming world record (Took the photo from Sanpei no Kappa) a manga that I really recommend but I ignore if it’s translated to English)
Ukiyo-e where you can see Kappas fighting.
But they also have a good side. Kappas are very curious, and they like to spy on humans. They understand and can talk Japanese, they can even have some relations with humans if they get benefits in exchange. For example, they usually do favors for humans receiving cucumbers as payment. For kappas, cucumbers is the only food that is more delicious than children. In the old times, Japanese families threw cucumber to the lakes near their homes so kappas won’t come to their homes and take their kids. Nowadays, their is a type of sushi called kappamaki (kappa roll), that is just rice with a piece of cucumber in the middle.
Kappa-maki are rolls of rice with cucumber. The name come from the belief that the favorite kappa’s food is cucumber.
A friendly kappa enjoying cucumbers.
Kappa with a cucumber
Kappas were sometimes good and some of them became even friends with humans. They helped them with their rice fields work or teach them medicine tricks. The legend says that they new lots of techniques that allowed them to relief backache. Their are even some temples that are dedicated to kappas, so they would help the villagers with their health.
This a “real” kappa in a pseudoscience Japanese magazine.
There are many theories about the origins of kappas. One possibility is that the myth appeared because of the old Japanese tradition that consisted in introducing fetus that were born dead in miniature boats and throw them to rivers. About the name, it seems that it comes from the Spanish/Portuguese word “capa” that means “cape, cloak or caparison”. As we said before Kappas usually wear a caparison to cover their backs.
Sanpei no kappa, the anime.
The monster at the film Ring is inspired by the Kappa legend. In many games there are kappas. For example in Final Fantasy VI, Guild Wars or even at Super Marios where “Koopas” are very similar to kappas, even the name is similar! If you remember Super Mario World, in the first island of the game there is a mountain called “kappa” that has a lake on the top that remembers a lot a kappa’s head.
It seems a kappa’s head. It’s the kappa mountain at Super Mario World.
Super Mario Koopas are based on Kappas.
More about Kappas in popular culture at Wikipedia.