Japanese Legends: Episode 3, the "Kappa" - The Modernist Son

Image Credit: Yokai.com


The third legend narrative of this series is the creature known as the Kappa, which translates to "river child". The Kappa narrative also achieves prosperity as a cautionary tale, meaning it warns young children of the dangers of running water. Within a folkloric context, legend narratives often exist in variation. With that in mind, I am choosing the most "pleasant" version of the Kappa narrative I could find when conducting research. The Kappa is found in rivers, cisterns, ponds, and lakes throughout Japan and enjoys a diet of cucumbers as well as human digestive organs. In terms of cautionary tales, it is pretty clear as to why children are frightened by creatures lurking in bodies of water; patiently waiting to attack if they (the child) get too close.

The Legend:

With respect to the Kappa legend, something to consider is that it originates from the Feudal Era of Japanese history. Although most people in the twenty-first century possess the ability to swim (I am not one of those people) this feat was less common during Japan's version of the middle ages. Moreover, parents shared this cautionary tale of the Kappa as a means of warning them the reality of how dangerous water was to those unable to swim and depicted as vulnerable. (Image above is taken from Yokai.com, and retrieved June 19, 2020). Keeping in mind that most people were unable to swim during the middle ages, the majority of parents were likely unable to help their children if swept away by a current.

Content of the Legend:

Kappa are aquatic, reptilian humanoids who inhabit the rivers and streams flowing over Japan. Clumsy on land, they are at home in the water, and thrive during the warm months. Kappa are generally the size and shape of a human child, yet despite their small stature they are physically stronger than a grown man. Their scaly skin ranges from a deep, earthy green to bright reds and even blue. Kappa bodies are built for swimming; they have webbed, thumbless hands and feet, a turtle-like beak and shell, and an elastic, waterproof skin that reeks of fish and is said to be removable. Other inhuman traits include three anuses that allow them to pass three times as much gas as humans, and forearms attached to one another inside of their shells—pulling on one arm lengthens it while the other arm contracts. But their most distinguishing characteristic is a dish-like depression that lies on top of their skulls. This dish is the source of a kappa’s power and must be kept filled with water at all times. Should the water be spilled and the dish dry up, the kappa will be unable to move. It may even die. (Yokai.com)

Analysis of the Legend:

Creatures and monsters from folklore are often said to have a specific weakness, which is shared throughout transmission of the narrative. However, legend narratives will often feature phrases such as, "If you are able to get close enough, and only if...". With that being said, the aforementioned narrative includes a direct weakness should a young child encounter the Kappa when approaching forbidden areas such as riverbanks, lakes, and ponds. Despite this cautionary tale providing a weakness for the Kappa, spilling the bowl which holds its source of power; this does not dismiss the fear the Kappa evokes from children. Through examination of the image above, the legendary Kappa is not something children wish to encounter. Consequently, this cautionary tales from the feudal era remains successful.

Final Comments:

Drawing from a folkloric context, something to keep in mind is that happenings considered supernatural are not exactly folklore. Instead, folklore relies on the validity of belief and plausibility. At the time of writing this article series, the legend narratives of the Kitsune, Akaname, and Kappa have garnered my interest the most following my recent admiration for Japanese culture. With that in mind, I will continue to research Japanese folklore and will likely use existing narratives for future folklore research projects at Memorial University.

(c) The Modernist Son, 2020

Note from Author: This will not be the end of pieces on Japanese legends. There will be more in the future, just uncertain of when that will be. Thank you for reading the latest piece at #themodernistson !

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