In Japan, parents warn their children about the Kappa. The Kappa is a water imp that smells of fish, eats cucumbers and has a head shaped like a bowl. Parents may have invented the creature in order to keep their children from wandering too close to dangerous lakes and rivers. Or perhaps the Kappa really is there, watching from among the reeds.
"Skin like a catfish." A 18th Century Kappa.
It would have been there a long time. The Kappa in the above image was captured and then sketched sometime about 1770 near present-day Tokyo. According to the text that accompanies the illustration it was two feet tall and had skin like a catfish. Later, an illustrated guide to twelve types of kappa was
produced, based on sightings and reports. The crawling creature in the image below is one.
See the whole document here.
Later, in the 1850s, a well-known Kappa lived in the Tone River. Its name was Neneko. It moved along to new locations along the river each year, taking lives wherever it went.
Most portrayals that I have seen of the Kappa show it as a smallish beast. This might explain why it always goes after children, Kappas are not big enough to take an adult. Once claimed, the child is dragged under the water and either drowned or, some say, converted into a Kappa themselves. The victim becomes amphibious, grows scales and soon cannot be distinguished from its surrogate family. It embarks on a new life, grubbing around riverbanks and watching for opportunities to gain a brother or a sister. I wonder how long it takes for the kidnapped child to forget its previous life. Perhaps it never does, and this sense of loss and loneliness is what has it leaping from rivers at children. Maybe the Kappa just wants to play, but whatever the reason another child is dragged under and the cycle continues.
Wooden carving of a Kappa, observe the bowl in its head. Collection of the National Museums of Scotland.
Should you encounter a Kappa it is vital to remember the following defense: The Kappa is a water creature and needs to maintain contact with its native element or it will become feeble. It has a bowl shaped head for holding water as it emerges on a kidnapping mission. The water-holding bowl can be seen clearly in a small carving I found in a museum lately. But the bowl is not exactly the Kappa’s weakness. Its weakness is its politeness, its Japanese culture of respect. If a Kappa comes at you quickly bow to it. The Kappa will be immediately compelled to bow back at you. With its head bowed the water will spill from the bowl and the Kappa will become weak. It will immediately have to dive back in the river, or die.