Kappa Sign

The Kappa – Likes long walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and drowning disrespectful children.

All civilisations throughout history have had folkloric creatures – demons, monsters, what-have-you – whose main purpose has been to encourage a specific value in kids who then become terrified of not obeying the value in question. I think this is the reason the kappa exists in Japan – encourage children to be polite, give appropriate gifts and not play near water.

The kappa, according to the stories, is a scaly green humanoid creature about the size of a child, usually with a beak and webbed feet. It is said to have a bit of a mean streak, leading it to pranks ranging from farting loudly where you can hear and smell it, to drowning children in the shallows – as scholars agree, it’s the next logical step. All in all, understood to be pretty foul creatures, and it’s little wonder that warning signs exist near lakes, ponds and rivers in smaller Japanese communities warning children to beware of the kappa.

Of course, no mythical creature is invincible – there are ways of avoiding falling victim to a kappa other than simply avoiding water. One big physiological feature of the kappa is the indentation in the top of the head, which is filled with water which keeps the kappa standing. Reports vary on whether emptying this indentation will kill the kappa or simply incapacitate it, but emptying the bowl gets rid of the kappa. And how do you empty the bowl quickly and effectively? You bow. Nice, deep and polite. Despite its mean streak, the kappa is a very respectful creature, and will bow back with equal respect when it is bowed to. Of course, gravity being what it is, this will tip the water out of the dish on its head.

The other method of avoiding a kappa is to give it a gift of food inscribed with your name. The cucumber is the favourite food of the kappa (which is why rolled sushi containing only cucumber is called kappa-maki) and is possibly the only thing you can give to a kappa that will lead it to see you as a friend and thus grant you immunity from future pranks. Some places in Japan will tell you that eating cucumber before you swim will also help prevent an attack, but other places claim that this is a sure-fire way to guarantee that you get yourself murdered by a scaly water-demon.

Of course, if you are attacked by a kappa, make sure you are well versed in either shogi (a board game similar to chess) or sumo. That same sense of duty that leads a kappa to kill itself just to return a bow also prevents it from backing down from a test of skill – and, you might encourage it to tip the water out of its head-bowl mid-bout whilst you’re at it.

If and when you get the kappa to empty its head, some stories say that you can get a lifelong servant out of the deal. Just refill its head with water from the body it lives in, and it will serve you until one of you dies.

So, that’s the kappa. But in all probability, it’s just a story.
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