Guest Author - Phyllis Doyle Burns
In Japanese folklore the yokai are classified as supernatural monsters. Yokai can be malevolent, mischievous, and some may bring good fortune to those who see them. Some, like the kappa, are flesh-eating water monsters who kidnap children, and drown people or animals.
The two main religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto -- both have a heavy influence on the folklore of the people. Within Shintoism, the kappa are just one of the many suijin, which are mythological and magical creatures, found in bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, ponds, and even wells. As with a lot of folklore around the world, the kappa legends are told to children to keep them fearful of going places they should not be going to without their parents.
A kappa is about the size of a young child. They look similar to a giant salamander and compared to the hanzaki, a very aggressive salamander with powerful jaws. Like a salamander, they can change their color to camouflage themselves. Their hands and feet are webbed, they are excellent swimmers.
Kappas love Sumo wrestling and will challenge those who are foolish enough to take them on, for the kappa will win and drag the person into the river.
Kappas love cucumbers, which are their favorite food. Legend says that when families want to go swimming in the river they should take one cucumber for each of their family members and write the names on the cucumber. The cucumbers are then tossed in the river to appease the kappa and protect the family.
The Maekawa is a river that runs though the city of Yatsushiro in southern Japan. A monument states that at that spot, 1600 years ago, the kappas arrived from China.
If good deeds or favors are done for the kappa, they will become very loyal workers to the one who helped them. According to legend, kappas are very knowledgeable about medicines and healing. One legend tells that they taught bone setting to humans. Because of these benevolent acts of kindness, shrines and temples dedicated to the worship of the kappas who were very helpful to humans.
There are many types of kappa in Japan, some indigenous and others that originally migrated from China. The flesh eating kappa is one kind that can be very aggressive and vicious, but if captured can become very helpful to humans. They so admire decorum that once they make an oath to help humans they are self committed to follow through and never break their oath.
There is but one way to escape a kappa when confronted by one. On the top of their head is a bowl-like indentation that must always be filled with water from the river, for that is where their power source is. If the water spills out, then they are unable to move. Another oddity about them is that they so admire politeness that they are obsessed with it. So, if one encounters a kappa, the wise thing to do is politely bow to it. Impressed, the kappa will bow in return and as it does so, the water will spill out of the head bowl and render them immovable. They are then powerless and weak.
One then has the choice to escape, or run and get some river water and refill the head bowl on the kappa. If one refills the head bowl, the kappa is so grateful that it will be an eternal servant to the person.