Kappa: A Japanese Tale of Monster and Sushi

There are two types of sushi one orders when going to a sushi restaurant for the first time. Mind you, this is a family tradition of ours so the results of this test are wholly subjective but I was raised to test a sushi chef’s ability to make the two most basic of sushi; inari and kappa.

For those not familiar with these, inari is a sushi made out of a sweetened tofu pocket and stuffed with sushi rice; sometimes with blanched green bean and carrot slivers. Kappa is a cucumber roll; sushi rice rolled around a partially de-skinned column of de-seeded cucumber wrapped in nori (seaweed).

Not coincidentally, these are also the two types of sushi that most children are fed when they are younger. Since I come from a family of storytellers (I’m being generous. Most people say we just talk a lot), the legends behind these sushi often came before the dish.

The inari is for another time, a sushi made of a fox-goddess’ ears (as one legend says) but the kappa is the legend of gore and vampirism that made for a delightful dinner time. I was a macabre child. They played to my weaknesses to get me to eat my veggies.

A legend from old Japan, kappa are creatures normally found in fresh water. The size of a child, they were described as ape-like with a turtle shell on their back and black hair cut in a tonsure. A depression shapes the top of their skulls and it is filled with water. Depending on the region, the kappa could have a turtle or duck beak and most had webbed hands and feet, walking upright when they left the river. Since a kappa could not be away from water, they carried it with them on the top of their heads, not unlike the euro-vampire myth of needing at least a handful of earth from their burial site in order to survive.

There were a variety of stories attached to the kappa. One of the first I’d heard tied the creature to the sushi.

One of the dangers in rural Japan was of the kappa rising up from the depths of a riverbed and snatching children, drowning them in the cold fresh water. The kappa, being a trustworthy yet evil creature, could be thwarted if the parent took a cucumber and carved the child’s name [1] on it, scoring it into stripes and hiragana or katakana, two of the simpler forms of Japanese writing [2].

The cucumber would then be thrown into the body of water to appease or confuse the kappa. The story goes that if the kappa eats your name on a cucumber, you are safe from its appetite because the one thing kappa love more than the flesh of small children, is a good cucumber.

Having been a carnivore for most of my life but have not tasted human flesh, I can’t comprehend that a cucumber would be better than a piece of meat but some people prefer breaded shrimp over raw ahi, one of my personal favourites, so I can’t really judge.

If a hapless human failed in providing a cucumber to distract the kappa with and went to bathe in its waters, the kappa would wrap its webbed limbs around its victim and drag it under water. After trapping its food, the creature fed by sliding its beak into the human’s body and pulling out the person’s shirikodama, a mythical ball that exists near the anus or intestines [3].

Does this make the kappa a vampire? We have two yeses in the “tick” column if we follow traditional Eurocentric vampire rules; needing the water to live and the sucking out of a person’s essence. I would also lay a yes where the creature’s look are concerned, more demonic than human without the polish of the charming vampire myth that’s been bandied about in the past hundred years or so.

Does a vampire need to be undead? Or can a demonic being qualify? I’d go with the latter since what is the purpose of a vampire? To ward a person away from a dangerous area? It could be that the kappa legend was to warn people away from treacherous waters although there is a theory that the kappa came into being because the poor could not afford to feed their newborn and threw them into the water to kill them. The legend of the kappa would serve then to steer people away from coming into contact with the dead; a taboo thing in Japan.

The kappa were responsible for all sorts things that befall a medieval community; horse theft [4], rape, destruction of crops as well as lesser pranks. General mischief to outright carnage, the kappa was a busy vampiric demon.

But there were ways besides tossing your cucumbers into the water to dissuade a kappa from its evil ways. While kappa dislike metal and are afraid of loud noises, there have one great weakness; their need for water.

Despite being wickedly evil, kappa are also known to be extremely rigid in following the rules of courtesy. When facing a kappa, a way to escape him is to bow deeply. Since he is then required to return the formal gesture, he will bow as low, thus spilling the water from his head. This allows the human to run and escape as the loss of water will weaken or kill the kappa.

If the human is close enough to water or has some on him, and is brave enough to get close to that shirikodama-sucking beak, he could refill the kappa’s head thus earning himself the kappa’s trust and loyalty. Since the kappa are traditionalists, any promise or oath given during this refreshing of their water binds them. If a human is smart, he could win over a protector for his village or family with a simple splash of water [5].

Asian legends are filled with “vampires” of one sort or another. There are creatures that will suck the essence from a person’s spinal cord and can be stopped by tossing a handful of rice to the floor as the creature cannot continue until all the rice is picked up and counted. Many (not the kappa of course) cannot cross running water and some are thwarted by the presence of jade. An eight-sided mirror will ward another type off while using a willow switch can kill another.

I’d strongly suggest investigating the Asian vampire legends. They make for good reading, if not for fantastic storytelling in tiny hole in the wall restaurants by a loving grandfather amusing his granddaughter. Have a bit of legend sometime with your sushi. A little blood, guts and gore makes better side dishes than wasabi and ginger.

This is also published at Vampire Awareness Month at Mark Deniz’ blog: http://markdeniz.wordpress.com/. Head on over.

1 An adult could also carve their own name on a cucumber and toss it in because apparently while young child is the choicest meal on a kappa’s menu, it’s not above chewing on the stringy, aged meat of an adult. This isn’t to discount the jerky like qualities of an elder so perhaps they were safe because let’s face it, rib eye steak quality meat is much preferable to long pig jerky.

2 The common villager probably didn’t know kanji but I’m not going to rule that out when discussing a legend.

3 I don’t know what a shirikodama was supposed to look like but I’m guessing it tastes a lot like cucumber.

4 Drowned horsemeat of course coming in a distant fifth after cucumber, fresh children, adults and elderly bathers.

5 Probably cheaper than cucumbers in the long run.

Kappa image from the Gazu Hyakkiyagyō. Illustration source: Kawasaki City Museum.
Cucumber sushi image source: http://www.sushilinks.com
Inari image source: http://www.champuru.net
Second kappa image source: http://altjapan.typepad.com

Posted on 13 July 2010, in Editor's Notes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Okay I’m coicvnned. Let’s put it to action.

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