So-called ‘drowners’, creatures said to inhabit bodies of water and drag unwary victims to their deaths, are amongst the most common folklore entities worldwide. My own home county of Lancashire is rife with such tales, including those of Jenny Greenteeth or some versions of the childhood boogeyman known as the Rawhead. Grindylows, aggressive water imps made famous by the Harry Potter series, also originated in Northern England.
Many other examples are found worldwide, including the Australian Bunyip, Scottish Kelpie, French Korrigan and Slavic Bolotnik, amongst many others. In the rich folklore of Japan, the yokai known as the kappa occupies a similar niche, blamed for drownings and disappearances as well a a wide range of misdeeds.
The name kappa comes from a combination of kawa (river) and wappa (child), sometimes translated as water sprite. Nearly 100 other names are found for it in regional dialects across Japan, including references to otters, turtles and monkeys.
Humanoid in shape and around the size of a child, kappas are said to inhabit bodies of water across Japan. Usually described as greenish in colour and either scaly or slimy, a kappa possesses webbed feet and a turtle shell on its back. On the top of their head is a small, sunken cavity, filled with water when they venture on land. This water is vital to the kappa’s survival out of the water, and they would lose their powers or die if it should spill.
Despite their small size, kappas are said to possess great strength and are highly skilled wrestlers. Prone to drowning both people and horses, kappa were variously described as devouring their victim’s liver, drinking their blood or extracting their soul in the form of a mythical ball known as their shirikodama.
While generally tricksters at best and violent killers at worst, some tales to describe them more favourably. Generally solitary creatures, they may occasionally develop friendships with humans, providing assistance such as delivering fresh fish or watering crops. They are said to possess great knowledge of medicine, to the point that Japanese folklore maintains that they taught humans how to set broken bones, making them valuable allies.
In other cases, humans obtain the services of a kappa through blackmail or coercion, most frequently by tricking an aggressive kappa. Obsessed with politeness and formality, kappas are compelled to return a bow offered to them. In doing so, they risk spilling the water in their head cavity, rendering them powerless outside of the water or even rooted to the spot. Defeating kappas at their preferred contest of wrestling can also secure their services. As a last resort, then can be driven away with iron, sesame or ginger.