Kappa: a river creature from the Japanese psyche

I had a bizarre conversation at work today with my fellow English teacher and the students. It was regarding this picture which the Japanese English teacher had pasted on the corner of the print out:


It was cutesy so I didn’t question it. Most Japanese kids (and adults for that matter) love Kawaii (cuteness) so the overabundance of it hardly registers anymore. Nor did its relevance to the lesson we were teaching today even enter my mind. Usually I make the lessons when we team teach but I wasn’t available due to a scheduling anomaly so the Japanese teacher had done it herself. I rarely if ever stick kawaii-ness on my lessons, and these were 3rd year students so of course, after 3 years of learning English from me they noted the style change.

A student pointed it out.

Student: Loco-sensei? Why did you put a kappa on the print out?

Me: A what?

Student: A Kappa.

Me: A Kappa???

She was speaking Japanese so I was using that rather small part of my brain that finds a fraction of the Japanese language comprehensible, but I couldn’t get it to engage the word. That even smaller area that comprehends every other language aside from English that I have been exposed to over the years took over, and I was transported back to my University days when I was attempting to pledge a black Greek fraternity known as Kappa Alpha Psi, but called Kappa (or Kay Ay Psi) for short. The Kappa were these cane-twirling pretty boys that I imagined would put me in good with the co-eds on campus, not to mention they look extremely cool at step shows.

Unfortunately, at my school’s campus, Kappa had done a bit of hazing, causing serious injury to a freshman, and so had had their charter suspended.

But my student couldn’t be talking about them, I figured. I turned to the Japanese teacher for an assist.

Japanese Teacher: You don’t know what a Kappa is?

Me: Evidently.

JT: Eh?

Me: No, I’ve never heard of one…what is a Kappa?

She pointed to the cute character in the upper corner of the print out.

JT: That’s a Kappa.

Me: Ok… (I turned to the student…actually all the students. From the looks on their faces I could discern that they were all amazed I had never heard of a Kappa) Well, I didn’t put the Kappa on the print out. Ohashi-sensei did.

JT: You really don’t know?

Me: Not a clue…

Then she tried to explain what it is but with her limited English vocabulary she wound up throwing a lot of Japanese words at me I didn’t know. I stood there nodding at the words I knew and trying to logically squeeze in the ones I didn’t.  All I could gather was that it was something that scared children, lived in rivers, and looked like a monkey or a frog or a duck.

The handout had been about fish so now I understood where a water creature fit into the lesson but…

JT: It looks up women’s dresses and fondles girl’s behinds and…

Me: It does WHAT?

A big laugh from the class…I didn’t get the humor.

Me: A kappa is a pervert that looks like a monkey and a frog and a duck and a…?

More laughter…

Student: Abunai (dangerous) deshou? (She was still laughing…)

Then I realized something that I suspect should have been obvious…

Me: Is it real? I mean, is it a real animal?

I had been thinking about those monkeys in Nikko that have been known to mug tourists and make off with the loot (usually food) into the woods where I imagine the stronger ones bogart the lion’s share of it. I wasn’t sure I believed those stories but I have seen them get pretty aggressive.

JT: No, of course not.

Slowly, as she explained its features and behavior, I began to understand why this was so humorous. The Kappa is like a Leprechaun or a fairy, mischievous as a poltergeist. Something straight outta Harry Potter. A folklore parents use to keep children on the straight and narrow, I presumed.

JT: It has water on its head…

I looked at the strange hairdo of the creature on the printout but I couldn’t see any water.

Me: Uh huh…

JT: Sometimes they fart loudly…

More laughter…

Fuck it, I joined in the laughter and wished I’d had some gas to pass at that moment.

JT: Sometimes they kidnap children, and they eat them…

Me: Geezus!

Student: …but they like cucumbers more than children.

Me: Lucky for you, ne

Student: Sou desu yo ne

Me: Well, they sound like lovely creatures…

My lesson was blown. This digression went on for a good 15 minutes.  But it was really interesting, this little bit of folklore. I’m a firm believer that if you understand the folklore of a people you’re that much closer to understanding the people for folklore emerges from the psyche and the imagination. My favorite writer, Zora Neale Hurston, studied the folklore of the African diaspora in Haiti and in Jamaica, and wrote a fascinating book about her research called, Tell My Horse.

Me: Has anyone ever seen a Kappa?

Students: No!

JT: There’s a sign by the river in my hometown. It says, beware of Kappa in the river.

More laughter…

I laughed, too.




16 Responses to “Kappa: a river creature from the Japanese psyche”

  1. September 7, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Kappa Alpha Psi was the also first thing that popped into my head the first time I heard mention of “Kappas”.

    After a more in-depth description, I started wondering if Kappas were inspiration for Koopas in the Mario Brother game series

  2. 2
    September 7, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Kappa are legendary creatures, a type of water sprite found in Japanese folklore


  3. 3 Curt
    September 7, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    You mean you’ve never wondered where the title for a ‘Kappa Maki’ comes from (sushi roll with just cucumbers)?

    To get rid of a Kappa, you have to get the water out of its head (or kill it, I’ve never been clear on if it gets rid of it or kills it). There a great Hell Boy animated movie that goes deep into Japanese folk lore – Sword of Storms – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/index.html?curid=5837972

  4. September 8, 2009 at 2:46 am

    Very funny!
    I took a lot of pictures with Kappa posters and statues (especially on Kappabashi-dori). 🙂
    Didn’t know they “look up women’s dresses” though… 🙂

  5. 5 Eddie
    September 8, 2009 at 9:27 am

    That seemed to be a fun class lesson for you. It reminds me of highschool when we would try to bring up something interesting to talk about to our teacher because we knew she would get side tracked and talk about it for the whole class period.

  6. September 8, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Ebun-san, thanks for the shout! Yeah, the Kappas are mad cool deshou? I’ve gone to many step shows and they usually come off looking the coolest,though Alphas aren’t bad either. Q-dogs are a mess. Don’t know much about Mario Bros


    Curt-san, thanks for the info and link. Nope, nver wondered about the cucumbers at all. Just ate them. hehehe

    Muza-chan, thanks for the shout. Yeah, I was shocked that Kappa are like these river chikan that everybody found so funny. Oh well, to each his own ne

    Eddie-san, it was a blast! You never know what you’re gonna get teaching here. Thanks for the shout(-:

  7. 7 Robert
    September 8, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    She does a wonderful job of talking about Kappas.


  8. 8 Aka Gaijin
    September 8, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    There are a few mummified kappa scattered around Japan. I first learned about them from the article below…


    This past summer I tried to visit the demon mummy located in Oita, but the shrine was closed for repairs.

  9. 9 Moogiechan
    September 8, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Check out tanukis. Specifically, look at an older tanuki statue. If you think kappas are funny, you’ll love tanukis!

    I never knew about the groping thing regarding kappas. It sounds like you’ve actually seen a few on trains! 🙂

  10. 10 Hobofat
    September 9, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    There’s a chain of kaitenzushi restaurants in Kyoto (maybe in all of Kansai region?) called Kappa-zushi, named after this turtle-frog-duck amphibian thingy! Loved the picture of the sign by the way, looks like mid-life crisis kappa.

    • September 9, 2009 at 3:43 pm

      mid life crisis kappa LMAO tru dat

  11. 12 Jon
    September 9, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Actually the water isn’t in its head, it is in a bowl-like indentation. Water in the bowl gives them their kappa powers. If you get them to spill it then they lose their powers. They won’t die though.

  12. September 10, 2009 at 12:02 am

    “A kappa is a pervert that looks like a monkey and a frog and a duck and a…?”

    Oh shit!! A good laugh before hitting the lights 🙂

    How is that twisted character related to the original lesson plan??

  13. September 10, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I love folklore and Japanese Shinto is so interesting. Kappa are water spirits, but like you say, they aren`t very nice. They will drag you to the bottom of the river or lake…. unless you bow to them. They will ALWAYS bow back and this empties the little indent of water they have on their heads. Without this, they die, so they rush back to the water to refill it, and you scarper while they are distracted.

    You should read more folklore. They are the most powerful stories from any culture, I think.

    Plus, we have kappa sushi in Miyagi-ken too, It`s a nationwide chain.

  14. September 10, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Here’s something that might help you:

    A nice list of japanese folklore creatures. Here’s the entry for the Kappa:

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