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What are those green turtle characters with beaks and leaf hats in Japan?

As you travel around Japan, you will likely notice (on signs but probably not in the flesh) little green creatures with beaked mouths and webbed hands and a leafy hat sorta thing. They are kappa, a popular yokai–Japanese folklore character–that lives in rivers and ponds. Here are some quick kappa facts:

The kappa is often depicted as a green, humanoid creature with webbed feet and hands, a turtle-like shell on its back, and a beak-like mouth. It is said to inhabit rivers, ponds, and other bodies of water. Kappa are known for their love of cucumbers, and there are many stories about them tricking humans into giving them cucumbers.

Kappa don't like it if you do stupid things around the water

Around Japan, especially if you’re biking through the countryside (a very enjoyable thing to do), along the many rivers, you’ll likely see signs that have kappa on them. When I lived near the Arida river in Wakayama prefecture, the river had anti-littering signs that featured kappa on them. The implication being that, if you littered in the river, the kappa would do bad things to you. It’s much more terrifying than a fine. 

Japanese sign warns people of danger and says to not play in the area. It includes an illustration of a kappa grabbing onto a child that is struggling in the water

This sign posted near Fukuoka has DANGER!! written at the top and then warns children not to play in the area. It goes without saying that the kappa will grab the kids’ legs and pull them under if they swim here. Image from WikiCommons

Kappa like cucumbers

Kappa are known for their love of cucumbers, and there are many stories about them tricking humans into giving them cucumbers. Apparently, if a kappa is going to do something mischievous to you, trading it a cucumber could get you out of whatever disaster the kappa was going to cause. 

North of Osaka train station, around the Haknyu station, you can find the Hankyu Kappa Yokocho arcade, a mall of shops and restaurants beneath the train lines heading north to Kyoto. You’ll find cute kappa mascots all around the arcade. 

Kappa were considered real animals

In the 18th century, the kappa was included in a government-sponsored encyclopedia of natural history called the Wakan Sansai Zue. Published in 1712, it was  one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias of its time. The kappa, also called a kawataro or kawaro, is described in the Wakan Sansai Zue as inhabiting rivers and ponds. It is said to have the body of a turtle and the head of a monkey, and was known for its love of cucumbers.

To see digital scans of the Wakan Sansai Zue, you can check them out by visiting the website of the National Diet Library of Japan. Only available in Japanese: 和漢三才図会

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