Does Kappa still have their occult power?

When sunshine gets warmer, I feel like going out near the water.  Feeling so, we headed off to Ushiku Swamp in Ryūgasaki, IbarakiW prefecture one afternoon.

Tall reeds growing on the waterside of Ushiku Swamp.

Tall reeds growing on the waterside of Ushiku Swamp.

Like many marshes, tall, withered reeds along the shore were hiding the bankline which blocked our way to get closer to the water, as well as the ground at some places seemed to be flaky, about to sink if we were to stay longer.  Since the sun was still high, we were able to know which way we should head, not to drown ourselves in yet cold water, and not to get into panic with the sudden movements of the creatures inhabiting.

It is a thrill even when you are expecting it and ready for.  Every time whenever we felt or heard something that we couldn’t inspect while walking between the reeds, we gave an estimation of what that was which made us imagine the scenes like birds, frogs or fish bumping into reeds when it flounced. But when we faced a situation where our estimation was out of reach, as the sound that we heard was more of what we could imagine among the creatures that could be there, we felt a bit scared and concluded,

‘What if that was the Kappa?’.


Glad it wasn’t REAL Kappa! Kappa statue standing in Ayame-en (iris garden) by Ushiku Swamp.

We laughed but didn’t want to contradict the idea because we thought it would be enjoyable to believe and cherish the old Japanese yokaiW.  Of course, the daylight helped us from getting into panic, running away, screaming like idiots!

Ushiku Swamp has been one of the famous place in Kanto regionW in Japan where many folklores of KappaW exist.  Kappa, as written in Wikipedia, is a folklore creature like KelpieW of Scotland which is believed to live near swamps, rivers and lakes all over Japan or to some as a cryptid.  Its’ appearance is described in a humanoid child-size form with webbed hands and feet, has a plate-like bald part on top of it’s head called ‘sara (meaning plate)’ which is thought to be it’s source of power and a beak for it’s mouth.  The feature of Kappa is well known to all the Japanese, young and old, and could be easily described.


Various Kappa diagram from “Suiko, shown in 12 different styles (Suiko junihin no zu)” written by Kousetsu Sakamoto, late Edo period. Photo from ‘ National Diet Library Official Site‘.

The prehension of Kappa among people in the past, before the World War II, and the present have changed after urbanization and electrification of our daily lives.  Kappa, by reading several folklores, all over Japan have both the good and the bad side which today, its characteristic is stressed only on its good side.  This phenomenon would have been the usage of Kappa as mascots in various profit organizations, because it was a well known folklore creature to all the Japanese, regarding the base of Kappa image combined to one of the main character, ‘Sagojo (Sha WujingW)’ in the Chinese novel, “Saiyu-ki (Journey to the WestW)” which was first brought into Japan in early Edo periodW, fully translated into Japanese in late Edo period and spread among the public through Kashi-honW pedlar who rented out books.  Sagojo, or Sha Wujing, in the original novel is described as a celestial being by the river of ‘Ryusaga’.

'Sagojo' from the series of 'The Journey to the West'  drawn by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.

‘Sagojo’ from the series of ‘The Journey to the West’ drawn by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.

You can see that Sagojo doen't look like Kappa in mid 18th century.

You can see that Sagojo doen’t look like Kappa in mid 18th century.

There are various opinions on Sagojo’s origin, about ‘Ryusaga’, as ‘ryusa’ apparently means quicksand by kanjiW, the Chinese character, but described as a ‘river’ which the Japanese are not attached to as there are no desert in Japan and gave a confusion while translating. (** Not only by this fact but also with the description of the underlying volume of the novel, the Ryugasa is said to be the desert which in the original novel, changed the description as a river.)
Sagojo, as a celestial being related to the river, was instantly associated with the legendary creature of Japan, the Kappa, even though by reading the described details in the original novel has nothing like the ‘plate’ on top of its’ head.  The unique concretization of Sagojo in Japan gradually grew into a description as ‘Sagojo, the Kappa’, especially among fairy tales of children’s which to the Chinese seems very odd.


Sagojo rental costume for children’s attraction today You can see that this Sagojo has the similar image to those of Kappa! Photo from ‘Kondo Sanko Co. Ltd.’ ofifcial site.

With such foundation and becoming one of the fictitious hero in Japan, Sagojo’s supernatural power, strength and serving attitude towards Buddha and his monk master was superimposed onto Kappa.  The Kappa’s bad side as dragging people into the swamps, eating innards and killing faded, leaving the good side as giving a hand or teaching how-tos of making effective ointment like the elves who helped the poor shoemaker in the fairy tale, The Elves and the ShoemakerW of the Grimms’ Fairy TalesW, or like the alchemist and witches who had heretical or spirit world skills which their skills are venerable and deserves to practice.

There were, until early 20th century, several ointments locally rooted sold all over Japan which origins were taught by Kappa, some becoming wealthy by setting up into business.

One of the Kappa ointment ingredients which remains written in Southeast Yamanashi is as below if you want to try making it by yourself….

Kappa’s Ointment

Effective on whitlow, bruise, cuts and swells.

Ingredients :
1 shaku (measure of capacity, 18ml) of rapeseed oil
12 monme (unit of weight, 1 monme is about 3.75g) of Shan yaoW
5 monme of ResinW
15 monme of CinnamomumW
22 monme of albino Japanese rat snakeW
25 monme of garlic
1 monme of Ligusticum wallichiiW (though the kanjiW written is 仙久, read as ‘senkyu’, similar to 川芎
2 monme of Ophiocordyceps sinensisW (? maybe different as it is only written as ‘かそう’)
75 monme of Japanese striped snakeW in type of melanic form
12 monme of LiquoriceW
16 monme of CloveW
25 monme of Colchicum autumnaleW (Or, dog’s organ & 25 monme of saffron)
** Reference from Mt.Kachi Kachi Ropeway official site.


Image photo of Kappa ointment. Photo from Nekoyama Miyao Hospital official site.

There is an orthopaedic hospital located in Chuo-ku, NiigataW, established in 1751 called ‘Nekoyama Miyao Hospital‘ which has a legend of their ancestor being taught from Kappa, a method of making a special ointment for bruise and sprain. Of course, their treatment today is of contemporary medicine.





“Hana-yori-dango (dumplings than flowers)” man drunk in Hanami, falling off the bank, into the water where…


Kappa trying to pull him in the water! More of an excuse than means of caution to grown ups.

I was brought up under a generation when scientific method of treating was prevailing though there were elders still living who taught me folk remedy sort of stuff in my childhood.  I remember my grandfather toasting rice cakes on hibachiW, a portable Japanese brazier, and dropped the rice cake by accident onto the ashes but quickly picked it up and dusted off the ashes, put it onto my plate for me to eat.  I refused to eat, saying that it was filthy but my grandfather said it’s not, in fact, the ashes are good like the medicine to your body.  Of course, there is no scientific basis on ‘ashes’ of the hibachi doing good for your health.  His saying must have come from his thoughts on setting a high value on food through his past experience on lack of food….
It was his generation who taught me not to go near waterside by myself because Kappa would drag me into the water which was an instruction for children, like the BogeymanW with fixed characteristic, not to go near the dangerous zones which worked until knowing that it was an imaginary creature and being influenced by friendly images of Kappa being used in medias.


‘Kaa-tan’, the Kappa mascot from popular TV program, “Mama to asobou, Ping Pong Pang” of Fuji TV. Photo from ‘Jinsei ha jojo da, blog of Endo Servey & Architect Office

The oldest memory of my Kappa image on media can be traced to a famous children’s TV program in late 1960’s to 1970’s called ‘Mama-to asobo, Ping Pong Pang’ where there was a Kappa-costumes character called ‘Kaa-tan’ wearing cute short trousers with suspenders or a nude family of Kappa drawn with sexy mum as Kizakura’s, one of the famous sakeW company’s mascot.


Kappa family. Mascot character of one of the major sake company,Kizakura. Picture from Kizakura Co.Ltd. Official Site,


A coin-operated ride of ‘Kaa-tan’!! … must be very old. Photo from ‘Nostalji-no natsukashi tamatebako‘.

I remember there were even coin-operated rides in the shape of Kaa-tan for children in amusement parks.  Several mangas, animes and dramas on “Saiyu-ki (Journey to the WestW)” with Sagojo looking like Kappa was out in public which emphasized the image as Kappa equal to Sagojo though there were some, like the world famous Japanese cartoonist and manga writer, Osamu TezukaW’s Sagojo of “Saiyu-ki” denying that he is a Kappa….



Apart from local tabloids or mystery magazines, the image of Kappa has been emphasised on the good side more, even being KawaiiW, maybe because the convenient development and the urbanization have lessen the danger that used to exist in nature near people’s living.  The usage of Kappa as a main character of the precept on waterside danger is definitely very few as places which used to be dangerous have been refurbished and safe.

Golden Kappa statue standing in Kappa-bashi

Golden Kappa statue standing in Kappabashi-dori. It is said that Kappa helped canal construction of Kappabashi….

Whenever I come up to Kappa related places and things, even by looking at the golden statue of Kappa in crowded Kappabashi-doriW in Tokyo, now, one of the popular places for sightseer from abroad would like to visit, I feel envious of the environment that of our ancestors’, who lived along with rich nature even though their daily lives were incommodious, but maybe more humane than now…  
Still, I may be crying for the moon, not contemplating to their reality when their lives were more tough technically and materially.


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