Kappa: Japan’s Cucumber-Loving River Demon

  • 2 min read
Kappa: Japan’s Cucumber-Loving River Demon

A rich tradition of folklore has long existed in Japan. Every region has its own tales of angry red-faced gods, battles with dragons, or singing raccoons. The supernatural beings that feature in Japanese folklore are called yokai. The term consists of two characters, yo meaning bewitching or calamitous, and kai meaning mystery or wonder. It is a broad term that includes ghosts, gods, animals, and human-like figures with strange powers or intentions.

Kappa: Japan’s Cucumber-Loving River Demon

What is a Kappa? 

The most famous yokai in Japan is the fearsome kappa. A kappa is a green, reptilian creature with a body similar to a human child. They have webbed feet and hands and are often depicted with a wide yellow beak. On the head of a kappa is a “dish” which holds water. If this water is spilled or dries up, the kappa loses most of its strength.

Kappa are widely feared in Japan. They are rumored to drag people, horses, and cattle into rivers, drowning them, and feasting on their organs. Their reputation is so widespread that even to this day many “No Swimming” signs in Japan feature an illustration of a kappa.

Kappa: Japan’s Cucumber-Loving River Demon

Keeping the Kappa Happy

As a result of all this mayhem, it is generally considered good practice to stay on your local kappa’s good side. Luckily, there is one thing they love more than anything in the world: cucumbers. In Edo (the former name of Tokyo), people would write the names of their loved ones on cucumbers and send them floating down streams and rivers to keep their family members off the kappa’s hit list. The kappa’s penchant for cucumbers is so well-known that sushi cucumber rolls are known as kappamaki in Japan.  

Once you keep on good terms with a kappa, they are not bad companions. They are known to help irrigate fields and even give gifts of fish that they have caught!


About the author: 

Diarmuid O'ConnorDiarmuid O'Connor
Diarmuid is a writer and musician from Ireland, based in Tokyo. When not working on music in studios around the city, Diarmuid can be found in the bouldering gym, at the cinema, or enjoying a cold one in the local izakaya.


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