Kawako (River Child)





Kappa are Japanese water spirits who live in family groups near sources of fresh water. Giventhe choice, Kappa prefer quiet, remote locations and have a special fondness for swamps but can theoretically inhabit any stream, lake, river, spring or even well. Kappa are powerful trickster spirits who are potentially very dangerous but who can also assist people and bestow tremendous blessings.

Kappa can be extremely malevolent. They lure children into the water to drown and/or eat them. Sometimes they sneak beneath swimming children, grab them and hold them underwater, drowning them, just for fun. They rape women and may drown them, too. Sometimes they steal.

As with Fairies, myths and legends regarding Kappa have been softened and sanitized in recent years. Kappa were once invoked as a threat to keep children from wandering near water; now Kappa are portrayed as cute, sweet and impish. Hello Kitty!(tm) plush toys appear dressed as Kappa.

Once you are in the water with them, it can be hard to escape from a Kappa however Kappa behave very consistently and so trouble can be averted. The defining physical quality of a Kappa is a hollow on top of its head filled with a mysterious liquid. Spilling this fluid will temporarily disarm the Kappa, rendering it harmless.

Here’s the trick: Kappa may be killers but they are very polite. If you bow to them in the Japanese manner, they will bow back. Keep bowing. Bow lower. Every time you bow, the Kappa will match you. Eventually if it bows low enough, the liquid will spill. This is your moment to run and escape.

Avoid encounters: Kappa dislike metal, especially iron and steel. Wear or carry iron implements or amulets. (Perhaps the reason Kappa traditionally pick on children and women is that, back in the day, they were the people least likely to be carrying swords or other metal weapons.)

Alternatively, when in Kappa territory or anticipating trouble, carry cucumbers. They are the Kappas’ very favourite food and they much prefer them to human livers, their other favourite food. Throw the Kappa a cucumber and run away.

Some negotiate with the Kappa: carving names onto cucumbers (one name per cuke) and throwing these into Kappa ponds on a regular schedule in the understanding that the Kappa will refrain from harming the persons named on the substitute offerings. This technique may also be used to petition or otherwise communicate with Kappa. Carve your message onto a cucumber and throw it into the water.

Kappa enjoy the art of sumo wrestling and are potentially competitive spirits, however this is one sport they can’t win, if only because the formal bow at the beginning of the match causes them to lose their precious head fluid and become temporarily weak. Do not, however, under any circumstances, accept a Kappa’s thumb-wrestling challenge. It’s just a ploy to pull you into the water. The Kappa always wins.

Why would you wish to petition the Kappa? Because they are not entirely evil and because they are the source of significant blessings:

• Kappa are skilled healers and can teach and transmit these skills to humans

• Kappa have access to underwater treasure, which they may be persuaded to bestow

• If Kappa like you, they are exceptionally loyal and helpful allies

• Kappa certainly have their faults but they are polite and honorable; their word is good, once they have given it. If a Kappa makes a promise, it will fulfill it.


Kappa are quirky and may mysteriously take a fancy to someone however they passionately love sumo wrestling and hence sumo wrestlers.


Resembling a cross between a turtle, frog and monkey, Kappa are approximately the size of a human child with a long beak and webbed hands and feet. Their bodies are covered with scales and there is a tortoise shell on their back. They smell fishy and may be greenish. Although they are child-sized, Kappa possess tremendous physical strength: they are strong enough to drag horses and cattle underwater with their bare hands. Remember: their Achilles heel is the water-filled indentation atop their heads.


Cucumbers; Kappamaki (cucumber roll sushi named for Kappas’ love of cucumbers); melons; eggplants


  • Suijin;
  • Yokai

Kappa serve as literary inspiration, for example, Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1927 novel Kappa and Hiromi Goto’s 2002 novel, The Kappa Child. A character identified as half-kappa is among the main protagonists of the very popular manga/anime, Saiyuki.


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.