The fifth prize in the “Voice of the Jewel” Paperback Launch Competition is a copy of the “Unofficial Guide to Japanese Mythology” ebook!
What do J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Marvel Comics, D.C. Comics, and “Pacific Rim” have in common? Would you believe … Japanese Mythology?
“Unofficial Guide” is a short illustrated book that offers an accessible, non-academic examination of one of the most fascinating pantheons in world mythology. Find out how films, books, comics and TV shows around the world have been influenced by the gods and demons of Japanese folklore … find out which images of strange, other-worldy creatures still decorate Japan’s shops and city streets today … and also find out why the Japanese consider some of their own legends too dangerous to be made known to the general public.
After the Tengu, the other well-known mythical creature would be the Kappa. It has a style of sushi named after it (Kappa-maki – a kind of cucumber and rice roll), it has a street named after it in Asakusa (Kappabashi), it is a staple in anime and manga, and was the subject of the classic Swiftian parody Kappa by Ryunosoke Akutagawa. There is a popular saying – Kappa no kawa nagare – literally, even a Kappa can drown in a river, meaning even an expert can make mistakes. In Western fiction, they have appeared in works as diverse as Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: The Sword of Storms, and have also entered the pantheon created by J K Rowling (see quote from this book’s
But what kind of creatures are they? And where do they come from?
The Kanji for Kappa means ‘river-child’. These creatures are humanoid, roughly five feet tall, have beaked faces and have their bodies enclosed by shells, like turtles. They have green scaly skin, and webbed fingers and toes. They can survive both on land and in water, but make their homes in rivers, and are extremely good swimmers.
Their distinctive feature is a water-filled depression on top of the skull surrounded by straggly hair. Legend states that this depression is filled with a magic fluid that is the Kappa’s ‘life-force’. If you wish to subdue a Kappa, then you should bow to it. It is compelled to return the bow, causing the liquid to spill out of the bowl-shape in the skull and the Kappa will lose consciousness.
Why would you want to subdue a Kappa? Because they do have a nasty, almost vampiric side to them. Some folktales state that Kappa prey on humans, attacking swimmers and sucking out the entrails, blood, or liver, through the anus. In the Edo period, wooden signs warning against Kappa were put up on riverbanks across Japan.
There are other sources, however, that say Kappa are simply mischievous and curious, and can be befriended. If you gave it its favorite food, cucumbers, it would help you with farming, engage in friendly bouts of sumo, or even teach you bone-setting.
Kappabashi – a small area west of Asakusa station, in the old Shitamachi part of Tokyo – owes its existence to these water-living goblins. The legend says that this part of the Shinhorikawa river was prone to flooding during the Edo period, causing great problems to the local residents and pilgrims to nearby Sensoji Temple. A local raincoat merchant decided to start a riverside fortification project, and when he began construction a group of Kappa emerged from the river to help him with the building. After the merchant’ death, his neighbors erected a shrine inside a temple housing the man’s tomb – and this shrine, can still be seen today, a short walk from the main Kappabashi street, at Sogenji Temple (or as the locals call it, Kappa-dera).
But could they exist? Read on …