Kappa (1927, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, translated by Geoffrey Bownas)


Above: An illustration of a kappa, dating from 1836.

The kappa is an impish, river-dwelling creature from Japanese folklore. Descriptions of its appearance vary, with turtles, monkeys, otters, salamanders, frogs and eels among the animals providing models for comparison. It seems to be a point of general agreement that it is about the size of a small child. Most have a beak, a shell and a bald cavity at the top of the head that must be kept full of water whenever the kappa is on dry land. Stories about them attest to wildly varying modes of behavior towards humans, ranging from the friendly to the mischievous to the lethal (including attempts to extract a magical ball from the anus, a terribly uncouth thing to do without permission and/or lubrication). They feature in Akutagawa’s delightful (though also rather bleak) novella-length tale, a kind of satirical fable written shortly before the author’s suicide in 1927. Akutagawa retains most of the basic physical characteristics of the traditional kappa, but soon leaves the riverine environment behind to portray an otherworldly but civilized kappa society, describing its peculiarities in custom, structure, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, sex etc.

The unnamed human narrator is an inmate of a psychiatric institution who regales all who will listen with his stories of life among the kappa, claiming to have dwelt with them after plunging into a strange dark hole (shades of Alice in Wonderland here). Kappa society turns out to be startlingly different from human society, yet at the same time oddly reminiscent of it, with contrasts and parallels both offering opportunities for oblique commentary on contemporary Japan in ways that will doubtless remind readers of Gulliver’s Travels. Especially sharp is Akutagawa’s depiction of industrial relations among the kappa, which have developed an ingeniously Swiftian solution to the problem of mass unemployment caused by technological advances: the literal consumption of laid-off workers. Each round of job losses is reported laconically by the press through the prism of falling meat prices (one wonders whether Paul Dacre has any kappa ancestry*). The narrator’s horror upon learning this is met with scornful laughter from his friends, who point to the practice in Japan of poor merchant families selling off into prostitution daughters they cannot support. In both cases, unproductive members of society for whom no place can be found are disposed of callously, but neither case is usually an occasion for discomfort, let alone outrage, in those accustomed to it.

In Kappaland, the political system is marked by a corruption that is absolute yet efficient, streamlined and effectively unopposed – a prophetic glimpse of where we’re headed, perhaps.  The meaningless names are telling: the main newspaper is called Pou Fou, ‘pou fou’ being an interjection translatable as ‘ah’. In government is the Quorax Party, ‘quorax’ roughly corresponding to ‘good heavens’ or ‘bless me’. The head of the Quorax Party is known to be such an inveterate liar, that the truth of a matter is easily arrived at by assuming the opposite to whatever he says. But he is a mere figurehead for the owner of Pou Fou, which, although ostensibly a publication sympathetic to the workers, is actually under the control of the most powerful kappa industrialist, himself mere putty in the hands of his wife. Each level deception is apparently obvious to most of the populace, but there seems not be much drive for reform, their indifference to their own exploitation an extreme representation of the mass quiescence and compliance in the face of capitalist oppression that was such a dispiriting feature of human society in Akutagawa’s time, and remains so today.

Not all of the humor in Kappa is so satirical. Much of it takes a more genial delight in topsy-turvy weirdness, such as the idea (advanced by the ghost of a deceased kappa in the midst of a séance) that Basho’s famous haiku ‘An old pond/A frog jumps in/Splash!’ would be much improved by the mere substitution of the word ‘kappa’ for frog. The kappa way of giving birth is a standout:

Just as we would, the Kappa calls in a doctor or a midwife to assist at the delivery. But when it comes to the moment just before the child is born, the father―almost as if he is telephoning―puts his mouth to the mother’s vagina and asks in a loud voice:

  ‘Is it your desire to be born into this world, or not? Think seriously about it before you reply.’

 At one such event witnessed by the narrator, the reply is in the negative, and so the child is aborted. Kappa babies can talk even before they emerge from the womb; one prodigy is reported as having given a ‘public address on the subject of the existence of God when it was only twenty-six days old’, but it sadly died shortly after.

The translation by Geoffrey Bownas seems to have anglicized or at least altered some of the names. The appearance of some very mild and very English swear words (‘Oh God!’, ‘bloody’, ‘Oh Christ!’, ‘for God’s sake’) struck me as a little incongruous. Japanese is famous for being a language without swear words; that reputation may be undeserved, but it seems that profanity may tend to work in different ways than it does in English. I have no idea what Bownas was working with, but I’d imagine it would be difficult for any translator bring off. One translation of a possibly profane interjection fails completely when a character is said to scream out ‘Goodness!’ – ‘goodness’ is a word I have yet to hear anyone scream. Quibbles aside, Bownas renders Akutagawa in admirably dry and elegant prose. It may be that he even gains a joke in translation, as when the kappa language is called ‘Kappanese’ – very good.

*Indeed, evidence of significant human ancestry has thus far been inconclusive.


2 thoughts on “Kappa (1927, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, translated by Geoffrey Bownas)

  1. This is fascinating. Reading Akutagawa’s short stories, I was wondering how he would fare in a longer narrative: those who excel in one often don’t always manage the cross-over into the other. This post makes me want to get hold of this translation. It does seem lighter in tone than the late short stories that I read, and seems to contain far more whimsy than is apparent in the shorter fiction, but there is also, it seems, a hard edge to it: the idea of asking a foetus before delivery if it wants to be born indicates a writer who doesn’t assume that life is necessarly worhwhile – that “not to be” may well be a better alternative than “to be”. What a fascinating writer Akutagawa was!


  2. Hi, thanks for commenting.

    I think it’s of great importance that the narration is a reminiscence from the confines of an institution. The narrator, in his madness, nostalgically longs for the extraordinary realm to which he can no longer return, and which contrasts so painfully with the human world in which he is stranded. The world of humans and the world of kappas stand, in this light, in stark contrast, with the former being desperately inferior to the latter. The madhouse, indeed, may stand for the former, and in his dissatisfaction and disillusion with the human world, the patient may see more clearly than his doctors. At the same time that he looks back on his time in Kappaland fondly, he also retains an understanding of its strangeness, a sense of shock at how wildly different life there is from life among humans. What the reader is able to appreciate with greater clarity than the narrator are the striking similarities between the two societies; sometimes it is precisely that which appears most foreign to the narrator that the reader recognizes as most familiar and cuttingly satirical. The critique of human society is multi-levelled. First, you have a society that confines and pathologizes the sensitive, artistic figure who has had a rare vision/experience (which may have some lessons for humanity – lessons dangerous to its underpinnings). Then you have a description of a non-human society that is at once superior to its human counterpart and the distorted mirror of its worst sins. Madness and cruelty is to be found wherever the narrator goes; perhaps the only proper response to it is a kind of willed, hermetic insanity as opposed to the unwitting insanity of ordinary humans and kappas going about their daily affairs. It’s all very suggestive of Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms. Akutagawa knew Swift; the first English translation of Kappa actually had the subtitle Gulliver in a Kimono!


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