Thursday, October 13, 2016

Demons, Cucumbers, and Social Criticism

Netsuke of a seated Kappa, signed Hokushō
or Kitamasa. Late 1700s. (British Museum)

Kappamaki -- cucumber sushi rolls. I generally prefer
my sushi to have more fillings than just cucumbers.
A kappa in Japanese folklore is a scary water demon about the size of a child. A kappa might drag unsuspecting passers-by into its native stream or river and harm or drown them. In Japanese, kappa also means cucumber, and a Kappamaki is a cucumber sushi roll. I love Japanese folklore with its unexpected connections!

Maybe kappas, who are sometimes green, resemble cucumbers. Or maybe kappas like to eat cucumbers. I'm not going to try to understand the connection, just to report a few things about kappas that I checked because I was intrigued by the Netsuke in the British Museum last week.

"Illustrated Guide to 12 types of Kappa," Japan, mid-19th century. (Wikipedia)
If you're walking in the countryside and a kappa seizes you, you're in trouble, but there's one thing you can do. Get him to politely bow to you and thus tip his head down. Because the kappa's great strength comes from the water in a little dent on top of his head, you can defeat him by tricking him into spilling it. Or grab a kappa's arm: it will easily come off and now you have a bit of negotiating power with the kappa. Like many folkloric creatures, these dangerous demons also have healing powers, if you can get them to help you.

In the past, reports of kappa sightings might have been due to actual encounters with a really nasty Japanese giant salamander that did attack people, or might have been responses to dimly-seen river otters standing on their back legs, I read. Or maybe kappas really did exist -- Japan was full of mysterious things back then. The Daily Mail newspaper in England in 2014 reported a finding of "real" kappa bones.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "Kappa,"
cover illustration by the author.
Besides searching the web for diverse facts about kappas, I have been reading the story "Kappa" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). My 1940s English-language edition includes a translator's introduction with a collection of quotes from 200 years ago about reported encounters of samurai and other Japanese people with Kappas. Scary little beasts!

Akutagawa's tale begins in a "lunatic asylum." Patient No. 23 repeats his story over and over "his hands clasped all the time round his knees, and his eyes looking now and then out of the iron bars of the window." (p. 27)

Three years earlier, the patient tells, he was walking in a foggy valley when he encountered a kappa, chased it, and fell down into the underground habitat of all the kappas. It was a topsy-turvy land where the values, the customs, the politics, and the relations between the sexes were all bizarrely different from those in Japan. Women chased after men, babies were asked before birth if they really wanted to live, and kappas ate kappa flesh cannibalistically. The lunatic patient described talking to a number of different leading kappa personalities, from whom he learned about their art, music, poetry, manufacturing, military exploits, and lifestyles, which all highlighted aspects of his native Japanese culture.

Here's a description of kappa political behavior from a conversation he has with Gael, a kappa industrialist and very influential man:
"'Quorax' is only a meaningless interjection like 'Oh.' But it was the name of a political party whose primary concern was supposed to be the promotion of the welfare of the kappa race. 
"'The Quorax Party is under the control of Loppé,' said Gael. 'As you know,  he is a famoous kappa statesman. Bismarck said that honesty is the best diplomacy, but Loppé is honest not only in his diplomacy but also in his management of home affairs.....'" 
"'But that speech of Loppé's --' 
"'Come now, just listen. That speech of his is of course a lie, every bit of it. But as everybody knows that it is a lie, it is an honest speech after all, isn't it? No one but you and your countrymen will call it a lie simply because it is a lie. We kappas do not -- well, it doesn't matter.'" (p. 70)
Other kappa behavior and attitudes were just as unlike human behavior and attitudes as this. Unlike human behavior? Well, sometimes too much like human behavior, just different in detail. Akutagawa creates an imaginary kappa world that remains pretty intriguing nearly a century later, though I would not say the story is completely successful as satire -- I'm not sure why. Maybe it cuts too close to the bone.


Claudia said...

A very interesting, divergent trail the kappas are leading you down Mae. I like my sushi without the nori wrap, as it just makes the eating messy. Like trying to bite through cloth or something.

Beth F said...

How cool to follow a subject like that.

Tina said...

If I run into a Kappa I will employ your advice of getting him to bow and get that water to spill! What a fascinating subject.
As for sushi, I could eat some with cucumber but I like all variety of sushi. Ok, maybe not eel, but most other filling.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

This is a great title for a blog post- how can you resist reading it?