Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And grey cock’s feather!
— William Allingham (1824–1889)
In every culture throughout human history, there are legends of beings who resemble us, but who are not precisely human. Besides the familiar European faery races, as well as the Little People of First Nations traditions, there are many legends of faery kinds of beings in Asian cultures.
In Japanese faery tales, the kappa figures in many stories. Kappa inhabit the ponds and rivers of Japan and are somewhat grotesque with human or ape-like faces, scaly skin and webbed hands and feet. They are sometimes even said to smell like fish, and they swim like them. The common expression kappa-no-kawa-nagare (“a kappa drowning in a river”) conveys the idea that even experts make mistakes. The most notable feature of the kappa is the water-filled depression atop their heads. These cavities are surrounded by scraggly hair. The kappa receive incredible strength from these liquid-filled holes.
Kappa are mischievous imps and notorious troublemakers. Their pranks range from the relatively innocent, such as loudly passing gas or looking up women’s kimonos, to much more serious, such as stealing crops, kidnapping children, or raping women. In fact, small children are one of the gluttonous kappa’s favorite meals, though they will eat adults as well.
However, if confronted by one, you can defeat its strength-giving head water by remembering that the kappa has a profound sense of etiquette. Simply bow deeply, and the polite but unpleasant kappa cannot help but bow in return, thus spilling his water.
Once depleted, the kappa is seriously weakened and may even die. Other tales say that this water allows kappa to move about on land, and once emptied, the creatures are immobilized. Naughty children are often persuaded by this to learn to politely bow, since bowing is an important defense against kappa. Even today, there are signs around Japan that warn children of kappa lurking in water.
Like some faeries of western culture, the kappa are not entirely antagonistic to mankind. The kappa are curious about our human civilization, and they can understand and speak Japanese. They sometimes challenge those they encounter to various tests of skill, such as shogi or sumo wrestling. And they may even befriend human beings in exchange for gifts and offerings, especially cucumbers, the only food kappa are known to enjoy more than human children.
Once befriended, kappa have been known to perform any number of tasks for human beings. And they are also highly knowledgeable of medicine, for legend states that they were the ones who taught the art of bone setting to mankind. Due to these benevolent aspects, some shrines are dedicated in honor of particularly helpful kappa.