The Kappa: Japan’s Mysterious Green Goblins

ABOVE: A painting of some suave Kappa-about-town seen in Nishi-Guchi Yakiton, a pub-restaurant in Asakusabashi, downtown Shitamachi Tokyo.

Today we look at one of the many bizarre denizens of Japan’s supernatural universe. They are legendary creatures that turn up as major characters in both the “Simon Grey” and “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” series. They have infiltrated every part of modern Japanese society, with shops, businesses, streets, clothes, food, and even haircuts named after them. Who are the Kappa? Where do they come from? What is their attraction? Is it possible that they might conceivably exist in today’s world, as a secretive race of cryptids?

The Kappa have a style of sushi named after them (a cucumber and rice roll wrapped in crispy seaweed, named Kappamaki because cucumbers are the creature’s favorite food), it has a district named after it in Tokyo’s ancient Asakusa district (Kappabashi), it is a staple in anime and manga, and was the subject of the classic Swiftian parody “Kappa” by Ryunosoke Akutagawa. A certain kind of raincoat is known as a Kappa, and a fringe cut straight across the brow with long hair on both sides of the face shares the same name.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.

ABOVE: The Golden Kappa Monument in Kappabashi, downtown Shitamachi Tokyo, and the nearby explanatory plaque.

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:

“But no one else cared that Professor Lupin’s robes were patched and frayed. His next few lessons were just as interesting as the first. After Boggarts, they studied Red Caps, nasty little goblin-like creatures that lurked wherever there had been bloodshed, in the dungeons of castles and the pot-holes of deserted battlefields, wating to bludgeon those who got lost. From Red Caps they moved on to Kappas, creepy water-dwellers that looked like scaly monkeys, with webbed hands itching to strangle unwitting waders in their ponds.”

From Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling, chapter eight.

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 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, and a magical ‘ball’ of energy called the shirikodama – 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.

ABOVE: A rendition of a Kappa by the renowned woodblock ukiyo-e artist, Katsushika Hokusai.

Nobody knows exactly when or why the stories of the Kappa started to be told, but they seem to begin roughly one thousand years ago, and there are several theories to account for them. One is that the Kappa could be inspired by the ‘Sha Wujing’ character, from the work of classical Chinese literature “Journey to the West”.

Another derives from the tragic custom of poor families to throw unwanted babies into the river if they could not afford to take care of them. Perhaps the tales of the Kappa were handed down through the generations as warnings to children to stay away from the river … for the lonely ghosts of those discarded souls may be looking for revenge.

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’s 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).


ABOVE: Kappa statues that can be seen adorning the streets of the Kappabashi district.

But could they exist?

If we start talking about ‘big lizards’, then sooner or later then someone will mention ‘dinosaurs’. It is generally believed that dinosaurs became extinct sixty million years ago, when a meteor struck the Earth. At that time, one of the most intelligent dinosaurs we know of was Troodon (a.k.a. Stenonychosaurus inequalis) a 1.2-meter-tall, 70-kg carnivorous dinosaur with perhaps the intelligence of an opossum.

What if Troodon had survived and continued to evolve and get brainier? In the early 1980s, paleontologist Dale Russell, curator of vertebrate fossils at the National Museums of Canada, in Ottowa, explored this possibility. Had the dinosaurs survived, argued Russell, and a species like Troodon grown smarter, it would eventually have needed to stand upright to balance its heavy head. Russell started to build a model of what an evolved Troodon could have looked like. He eventually produced this statue of a large-brained, reptilian biped with enormous eyes and three-fingered hands …

Could it be that the Kappa is not a myth, but actually Reptilia Sapiens – an evolved dinosaur, and an undiscovered cryptid?

And here’s something else; saurian bipeds also figure heavily in the conspiracy theories of David Icke, who has written a series of books he claims are factual, in which he claims lizard people have taken over the world by stealth and we are actually their slaves, hypnotized by TV and GM food. The President of the USA, The Pope, even the entire Royal Family of Great Britain, are all lizard people in disguise.

So, next time the Prime Minister of Japan, the President of the USA or the Prime Minister of the UK appear on TV, take a good look … Don’t they seem a bit reptilian to you?

Want to know more about the mysterious world of Japan’s Yokai? Try “Yokai Attack” by Matt Alt – one of the definitive encyclopedia on the subject!

“Simon Grey and the March of a Hundred Ghosts” is available now!

“Voice of the Sword”, Book One of the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” is on pre-release here!



About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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