By Ben Hamamoto, Editor Nikkei Heritage
The new issue of Nikkei Heritage, "The Supernatural" has just come out and, as often happens, we didn't have enough space for every article.Here is an article I wrote on Kappa and Hawaii's water spirits.
Water has always held a special place in Japanese folk belief. The source of all life, water purifies and, in the “toro nagashi” lantern ceremony at the end of “O-bon,” it carries visiting ancestral spirits back to the land of the dead. Certain bodies of water are said to be haunted by spirits of the dead, nature spirits, and sometimes by living supernatural beings called “kappa.” One of the most iconic Japanese mythical creatures, the water imp kappa is about the size of a child. It has long, scaly green limbs, a turtles beak and shell, but also scraggly matted hair, surrounding a small saucer on the top of its head. In contemporary Japan, cute cartoon kappa are sometimes featured in advertising, giving the impression they are friendly creatures. However, despite some playful qualities, (like a love of sumo and shogi chess), kappa are said to be quite vicious. In the middle of the night, kappa sneak out of the water to suck the blood and eat the organs of livestock, steal vegetables, and prey on humans when they are alone and vulnerable, even dragging women into the water to assault them and luring children into ponds to pull their organs out through their anus.
Kappa can be subdued by emptying the water from the saucer on their head, rendering them helpless. They can also be bribed with their absolute favorite food, cucumbers — hence the name of cucumber-roll sushi, “kappa-maki.”
The late Glen Grant, Hawaii’s foremost expert on folk belief, never wrote about a kappa sighting, but did note that Issei mothers used to warn their children from walking too close to ponds for fear kappa or water spirits would drag them in.
Grant also came across first-hand accounts of murderous water spirits and a creature, dubbed “the green lady” by the Wahiawa community it frightened, that bears a striking resemblance to the kappa.
In 1957, six children an elementary school in Wahiawa elementary school on Oahu reported seeing a woman with green scaly skin, seaweed hair, webbed feet, clawed hands and a deformed face with no nose. Police questioned the children, who claimed to have spotted it in the gulch behind the school gymnasium, but ultimately dismissed the claims as the product of overactive imaginations. Still, rumored sightings persisted, even in the area surrounding Makaha Elementary School in the 60’s.
According to John Kaikonu’s article in the book “Weird USA,” in 1947 in Ola’a village on the Big Island, a boy, whose last name was Tanaka, was suddenly pulled into a pond by an unseen force while playing with his friends. The children alerted the authorities who sent a dive team after the drowned boy. They were shocked by what they found. The dead boy was sitting on a rock; hands on his sides, eyes and mouth open, swaying gently back and forth with the current in complete defiance of physics.
According to Dr. Grant, from then on, villagers heard the sound of crying coming from the pond. Children were warned to steer clear of the pond and those that didn’t reported feeling something tug at their ankles when they got near.
One man was walking with his son, when the young boy was suddenly dragged into the water, screaming and clawing at the ground. The father quickly summoned a rescue team and they found the child at the bottom of the pond, sitting on a rock just like the Tanaka boy. They were able to pull him up in time and a Shinto priest was subsequently summoned from Hilo to exorcise the pond.
Grant also writes of another haunted pond on Oahu, which a former police sergeant who corroborated his story with a police report told him about. The pond at Waihe’e Falls is a popular diving spot and the sergeant had recovered a dozen bodies out of its murky waters during his time on the force.
Bodies found in Waihe’e Falls, the officer said, don’t float. Generally, gasses accumulate in a corpse’s body cavities, causing them to float within 24 hours. People that drown in the pond, though, are often not recovered for three to four days. So when the sergeant got a call about a missing body in the pond on a July afternoon in 1952, he was not surprised.
A group of Merchant Marines had been swimming in the pond when one of them, a man named Bill, lost his footing while attempting a dive. The back of Bill’s head struck a rock as he fell into the water and he died — an autopsy later revealed — instantly. His friend’s jumped in and searched for him for a full 10 minutes, but could find no trace. Then, suddenly, Bill’s shoulders popped up out of the water. His head and body drooped as if something was lifting the corpse by the nape of its neck. His friends rushed over, but before they could reach the body, it plunged back into the depths of the water as quickly as it had risen.
The police arrived on the scene with a full recovery team of 12 people. They dredged the bottom of the pond with hooked poles and nets, they sent divers in, but they were unable to find any trace of Bill by sundown.
The sergeant and crew took off for the night, planning to return at sun-up to continue the search. Bill’s friends, though, pledged not to leave until the body was recovered and camped out by the pond that night.
The next morning, before they could reach the pond to resume their search, the sergeant and his crew found the young men running down the trail in a panic. The previous night, about 10 p.m., the men began hearing noises coming from the pond. From within their tent, they heard something emerge from the water and dash into the bushes nearby. The thing moved about the bushes and trees in a distinct pattern. It paused and all was quiet for a moment, before it leaped over their tent and into the water with a splash. Minutes later, the sound emerged from the water and repeated. Before long, the young men came to the conclusion it was stalking them. Then around 1 a.m., it began making a noise. The men imitated it for the sergeant, an experienced hunter, as best they could. He did not recognize the sound as similar to any animal that lived in the area. Though he did not tell this to the young men, the sound, the sergeant told Grant, sounding like a human being shrieking in pain.
When the rescue crew reached the pond, though, they froze in their tracks. The normally murky water had become crystal clear overnight. Though this should have made the body easy to find, an hour later, they had no success and were beginning to think it had floated downstream. The sergeant, though, hiked to the top of the falls to get a better look, and from that vantage point, he was able to see Bill’s body, laid face down on a flat rock under water. He gave his crew the location by walkie-talkie, but they could not see Bill or the rock, possibly, the sergeant thought, due to a refraction of light. Going on their sergeant’s verbal directives, the crew was able to hook the rock and began pulling Bill’s body up. However, the second his feet left the water, the sergeant felt a shock in his body. His men immediately radioed — they felt it too. The water, at the spot Bill’s body had been pulled up, began bubbling.
From his vantage point on top of the falls, the sergeant could see something moving quickly back and forth through the water. Soon, he said, the whole pond looked like a washing machine, with water frothing in a circle.
The frightened crew bagged the body up and hurried down the mountain, but when they had gotten about 200 feet away, the waters of the pond came after them as a giant tidal wave. The wave hit the crew and carried them all the way down to the beach. The pond had been completely emptied, causing the worst flood in decades.
Looking for answers, the sergeant went to the University of Hawaii, but its scientists didn’t have any. The only explanation he got, years later, was from an old Hawaiian man.
In the old days, the man said, Waimea valley was sacred ground. The pond contains an “akua,” a god, who takes human sacrifices, in a ritual that lasts three days. By removing the body, the man said, they had interrupted the ritual before the waters were cleansed of the sacrifice’s “lepo” or “dirt.” The pond, he said, had no choice but to spit out the dirty water.Whether caused by spirits or a yet unexplained natural phenomenon, these drownings provide a word of caution for swimmers a