Japanese Myth and Folklore – Kappa

Continuing with the series of articles on Japanese mythology, today I will talk about the kappa. The kappa (河 童) is one of the monsters of the japanese folklore best known. It is a demon that lives in water and that, according to Japanese legends, lives in the rivers and ponds of Japan. He is a lethal monster and also a joker. In the Shinto tradition, the kappa was considered a god of water (水 神).

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Kappa have a human form and are about the same height as a child. There are several illustrations of the kappa, some look like monkeys and there are others that have a beak and even a tortoise shell. However, in most illustrations they appear with a reptile appearance. Kappa can swim like a fish thanks to their amphibious characteristics, such as webbed hands and feet. The most characteristic thing about these creatures is that they have a skull that has a bowl on top of its head filled with water. It is supposedly their source of life. If it dries up, the kappa dies, unless it is returned to the water. One way to kill them is precisely to greet them with a bow. These creatures are so courteous that they return the salute, emptying the contents of their head. If a human fills their heads with water and saves them from dying, they are eternally grateful to her.

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There are several explanations for the origin of the kappa. Some say i know poor families who could not take care of a baby were taken and thrown into the river to die by drowning. Many families decided to tell their children the story of the kappa to discourage them from going to the rivers, where these babies could be found. Another theory says that it may be a variation of Sha Wujing, a character that appears in the Chinese novel “Journey to the west”. There are some similarities between the two, and the name was likely superseded. Finally, another explanation may be the arrival of Portuguese monks to Japan in the 16th century. The monks wore shaved sideburns and wore robes shaped similar to those in some kappa illustrations. The word “cap” in Portuguese it was used to refer to the monk’s habit, so it may have been imported into the Japanese language.

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Kappa like to eat kids and cucumbers. In many accounts, these creatures are responsible for the death of a child by drowning, which serves to warn children not to swim alone. They are also said to be mischievous beings, who go to watch the women bathe and steal their clothes. Although they attack people, they are beings that have been interested in man, learning his language. Sometimes they are described as intelligent beings who know about medicine and agriculture who ask for cucumbers or some gift in exchange for their services.


Today the kappa are not as feared as before. Even near rivers and ponds you can see kappa figurines with signs warning children not to get too close to the water’s edge. Images of these creatures can also be seen on kokeshi dolls, earrings, backpacks, lunch boxes, and any other type of merchandise. There is also a type of sushi in his honor, the kappamaki, whose main ingredient is cucumber.