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A drawing of a kappa.
Kappa (河童, "river-child"), alternatively called Kawatarō (川太郎, "river-boy"), Komahiki (“horse puller”), or Kawako (川子, "river-child"), are a yōkai found in Japanese folklore, and also a cryptid. Their name comes from a mixture of the word "kawa" (river) and "wappo," an inflection of "waraba" (child). In Shintō they are considered to be one of many suijin (水神,“water deity”), their yorishiro, or one of their temporary appearances. A hair-covered variation of a Kappa is called a Hyōsube (ひょうすべ). There are more than eighty other names associated with the kappa in different regions which include Kawappa, Gawappa, Kōgo, Mizushi, Mizuchi, Enkō, Kawaso, Suitengu, and Dangame. Along with the oni and the tengu, they are one of the most well-known yōkai in Japan.
Kappa are typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form, and about the size of a child. Their scaly, reptilian skin ranges in color from green to yellow or blue. Kappa supposedly inhabit the ponds and rivers of Japan and have various features to aid them in this environment, such as webbed hands and feet. They are sometimes said to smell like fish, and they can certainly swim like them. The expression kappa-no-kawa-nagare ("a kappa drowning in a river") conveys the idea that even experts make mistakes. Although their appearance varies from region to region, the most consistent features are a carapace, a beak for a mouth, and a plate (sara), which is a flat hairless region on top of their head that is always wet, and which is regarded as the source of their power. This cavity must be full whenever a kappa is away from the water; if ever dries, the kappa will lose its power, and may even die, according to some legends. Another notable feature in some stories, is that the kappa's arms are said to be connected to each other through the torso and able to slide from one side to the other. While they are primarily water creatures, they do on occasion venture on to land. When they do, the plate can be covered with a metal cap for protection. In fact, in some incarnations, kappa will spend spring and summer in the water, and the rest of the year in the mountains as a Yama-no-Kami (山の神, “mountain deity”). Although they are reported to inhabit all of Japan, they are often said to be particular to Saga Prefecture.
Kappa are usually seen as mischievous troublemakers or trickster figures. Their pranks range from the relatively innocent, such as loudly passing gas or looking up women's kimonos, to the malevolent, such as drowning people and animals, kidnapping children, and raping women.
As water monsters, kappa have been frequently blamed for drownings, and are often said to try to lure people to the water and pull them in with their great skill at wrestling. They are sometimes said to take their victims for the purpose of drinking their blood, eating their livers or gaining power by taking their shirikodama (尻子玉), a mythical ball said to contain their soul which is located inside the anus. Even today, signs warning about kappa appear by bodies of water in some Japanese towns and villages. Kappa are also said to victimize animals, especially horses and cows; the motif of the kappa trying to drown horses is found all over Japan. In these stories, if a kappa is caught in the act, it can be made to apologize, sometimes in writing. This usually takes place in the stable where the kappa attempted to attack the horse, which is considered the place where the kappa is most vulnerable.
Kappa are also known as ravishers of women. An 18th-century ukiyo-e image by Utamaro depicts kappa raping an ama diver underwater. In his Tōno Monogatari, Kunio Yanagita records a number of beliefs from the Tōno area about women being accosted and even impregnated by kappa. Their offspring were said to be repulsive to behold, and were generally buried.
It was believed that if confronted with a kappa there were a few means of escape: Kappa, for one reason or another, obsess over being polite, so if a person were to gesture a deep bow to a kappa it would more than likely return it. In doing so, the water kept in the lilypad-like bowl on their head would spill out and the kappa would be rendered unable to leave the bowed position until the bowl was refilled with water from the river in which it lived. If a human were to refill it, it was believed the kappa would serve them for all eternity. A similar weakness of the kappa in some tales are their arms, which can be easily pulled from their body. If their arm is detached, they will perform favors or share knowledge in exchange for its return. Once the kappa is in possession of its arm it can then be reattached. Another method of defeat involves the kappa and their known love of shogi or sumo wrestling. They will sometimes challenge those they encounter to wrestle or other various tests of skill. This tendency is easily used against them just as with the bow, by encouraging them to spill the water from their sara. They will also accept challenges put to them, such as in the tale of the farmer's daughter who was promised to a kappa in marriage by her father in return for the creature irrigating his land. She challenged it to submerge several gourds in water and when it failed in its task, it retreated and she was saved from the promised marriage. Kappa have also been driven away using their aversion to variously, iron, sesame, or ginger.
Kappa are not entirely antagonistic to humankind, however. They are curious of human civilization, and they can understand and speak Japanese. They may even befriend human beings in exchange for gifts and offerings such as nasu (茄子, "Japanese eggplant"), soba (そば or 蕎麦, “buckwheat noodles”) nattō (なっとう or 納豆, "fermented soybeans"), or kabocha (カボチャ, 南瓜, “winter squash”), but especially cucumbers, the only food kappa are known to enjoy more than human children. Japanese parents sometimes write the names of their children (or themselves) on cucumbers and toss them into waters believed to be infested with kappa in order to mollify the creatures and allow the family to bathe. In some regions, it is encouraged to eat cucumbers before swimming as protection, but in others it is warned this act is said to guarantee an attack. There is even a kind of cucumber-filled sushi roll named for the kappa, the kappamaki.
Once befriended, kappa have been known to perform any number of tasks for human beings, such as helping farmers irrigate their land. Sometimes, they will bring the occasional gift of fresh fish, which is regarded as a mark of good fortune for the family that receives it. They are also highly knowledgeable of medicine, and legend states that they taught the art of bone setting to humankind. Due to these benevolent aspects, some shrines are dedicated to the worship of particularly helpful kappa. There were also festivals meant to placate the kappa in hopes of receiving a good harvest, some of which still take place today. These festivals generally took place during the two equinoxes of the year when the kappa traveled from the rivers to the mountains and vice versa. Kappa may also be tricked into helping people. Their deep sense of decorum will not allow them to break an oath, for example; so if a human being can dupe a kappa into promising to help him, the kappa has no choice but to follow through.
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