In ancient Japanese folklore, the Kappa is a water demon that inhabits rivers and lakes and devours disobedient little children. While some believe the legend originated from sightings of the Japanese Giant Salamander, a species still alive today, others maintain that the myth is real and that an unusual set of mummified remains, showing a webbed hand and a foot, is proof that the Kappa exists. Now people will have the opportunity to see for themselves as the unusual body parts will go on display for the first time on the island of Kyuushuu in Japan.
The Kappa, a word meaning ‘river child’, is usually depicted with the body of a tortoise, a beak, and the limbs of a frog, and has a hollow filled with water on top of his head. While they are primarily water creatures, they are believed to occasionally venture onto land.
According to legend, the cavity must be kept wet when the Kappa ventures out of the water, or he will lose his powers.
The mischievous Kappa. Image source.
Kappa are usually seen as mischievous troublemakers or trickster figures. Their pranks range from the relatively innocent, such as making rude noises or looking up women's kimonos, to the malevolent, such as drowning people and animals, and kidnapping children and eating them. Parents are known to use the legend of the Kappa to scare children away from the water.
The Kappa is one of the most well-known folk legends in Japan and many believe the mythical creature to be true. In fact, there are signs near some lakes in Japan warning people of their presence. However, others maintain it is much more likely that the legend of the Kappa is connected with sightings of the Japanese Giant Salamander, or ‘hanzaki’, which is known to be aggressive and to grab its prey with its powerful jaws.
The Japanese Giant Salamander. Image source.
Now believers and skeptics alike will have the opportunity to see some mummified remains, purportedly belonging to a Kappa, and to decide whether or not they belong to the legendary creature. The remains, which include a foot and an arm with hand attached, are said to have been given to the Miyakonijo Shimazu family after a Kappa was supposedly shot on a riverbank in 1818. They will now go on show for the first time at the Miyakonojo Shimazu Residence in Miyazaki prefecture on the island of Kyuushuu in Japan.
Mummified remains purporting to be from the Kappa - a scaly green water demon said to be around the same size as a child - are going on show in Japan. Photo source.
The mummified remains are not the first Kappa mummies to have been found. A number of claims of Kappa mummies have been made, although some are known to have been crafted by Edo-period artists (1603 to 1867) using parts of animals ranging from monkeys and owls to stingrays.
Left: Kappa mummy at Zuiryūji Temple, Osaka. Right: Kappa mummy at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden (Netherlands). Source.
Kappa mummy at Matsuura Brewery. Source.
The Edo period saw some serious scientific literature devoted to the study of the Kappas. Suikokouryaku (1820), for example, is a compendium of kappa-related information gathered from a variety of sources from Japan and China. The book, which is housed in the Iwase Bunko Library, includes numerous kappa sketches, several of which are shown below.
Kappa sketches from Suikokouyaka (1820). Image source.
According to Japanese folklore, one way in which one can defeat a Kappa is to take advantage of its obsession with manners. If a person were to deep bow to a Kappa, it would return the gesture, causing the water to spill from the hollow on its head, thus rendering it immune to its powers. It was believed that if a human were to refill the water, the kappa would serve them for all eternity. Legends say that Kappa can also be repelled using their aversion to iron, sesame, or ginger.
After centuries of stories and investigations, scientists have not managed to confirm the existence of the mysterious creature, despite the fact that numerous bones have been discovered that are said to belong to the Kappa.
Featured image: Artist’s depiction of a Kappa. Credit: allendouglasstudio
By April Holloway