What does Kappabashi mean?


(kappa/rain coat bridge)

The famous kappa statue at Kappabashi.
The famous kappa statue at Kappabashi.

Today’s article is another reader request. Always appreciate the requests and they usually get put on the front burner. That’s how I roll. Fan Service.

Kappabashi is a typical modern shitamachi area but its main claim to fame is the manufacture and sale of realistic mock ups of food called 食品サンプル shokuhin sanpuru food samples. Maybe it’s part of a kanji using culture that some people claim is more “visual-oriented” than other cultures[i] or maybe it’s not, but in the late 1960’s, Japanese restaurants started using plastic mock ups of their menu in the windows[ii]. Since the advent of high resolution printers and reasonably priced, illuminated plastic signage, the plastic mock up is a dying art form. But if you were a restaurant owner, for a good 40 years, the best place in Tōkyō to get mock ups of your dishes for your window displays was Kappabashi. In fact, if you need anything for a restaurant or just your home kitchen, this is the place to go. Pots, pans, cooking chopsticks, baking tools, spatulas, or wholesale utensils, you name it! The fake food shops are still here and restaurant and kitchen suppliers are in no short supply.

Fake food makes me hungry for real food.
Fake food makes me hungry for real food.

The name is often written in hiragana because no one seems to agree on how the first word かっぱ kappa should be written. As such there is much debate as to where this name actually derives from. There are 3 contending theories. Although kanji isn’t always reliable, let’s take a look at the 2 competing spellings and go from there.

Let’s Look at the Kanji


an Edo Period rain coat


a mythical riparian creature

Again, we can’t always rely on the kanji, but if we are talking about a 合羽 kappa raincoat, this is actually a foreign word. It derives from Portuguese capa which itself derives from the same Late Latin word that gives us “cape” – as in Superman, Darth Vader and Dracula[iii].  When speaking, this kappa is sometimes called 雨合羽 amakappa rain kappa to clearly distinguish it from the creature kappa. That word is alternatively written 雨かっぱ amakappa which is totally ambiguous – because Japanese people are really losing their kanji skills[iv].  Anyhoo, today, the usual word for a raincoat is a loanword from English: レインコート reinkōto raincoat.

Notice the "cape" or overcoat worn by the Portuguese. This was a "capa." (And what's up with the balloon pants?)
Notice the “cape” or overcoat worn by the Portuguese. This was a “capa.”
(And what’s up with the balloon pants?)
Various styles of "kappa" - including both samuria and farmers.  Not much difference.
Various styles of “kappa” – including both samuria and farmers.
Not much difference.

If we talk about a 河童 kappa then we are talking about a mythological species/culture of amphibious humanoids who live along the rivers of Japan. They aren’t antagonistic to humans[v], but they aren’t exactly on the best of terms with them and they will take you out if you mess with them. However, they’re said to have a profound respect for manners.  They feel a compulsion to uphold promises – which in the mythology, always bites them in the ass. That is to say, there’s always a way to trick them into helping you. Many depictions of kappa exist. Some have a dish on their heads; some have a bald spot, some look froglike, and some have beaks. Some wear kappa (the raincoat) showing how far back the confusion and subsequent interweaving of kappa mythology and raincoats has gone.

A few depictions of kappa including the much neglected ass raping kappa whose legends barely made it down to the modern era.  (I'm serious about that last point, actually...)
A few depictions of kappa including the much neglected ass raping kappa whose legends barely made it down to the modern era.
(I’m serious about that last point, actually…)

The “A Real Guy Did It” Theory

In the Edo Period, this area stood a major alluvium of Edo Bay. The bay overflowed into many major inlets here, including 隅田川 Sumida-gawa the Sumida River.  Because of this proximity to the bay, the area frequently flooded. In the early 1800’s, a certain merchant who lived here named 合羽屋喜八 Kappaya Kihachi Kihachi the Umbrella Seller got fed up with his shop and all of his neighbors and friends getting flooded all the time. So one day he said, “Hey, I’ve got a lot of money saved up. I’m gonna tear this city a new one.” And by “tear” he meant “dig” and by “a new one” he meant “a proper drainage system.”

In nearby 曹源寺 Sōgen-ji Sōgen Temple, now nicknamed かっぱ寺 Kappa-dera Kappa Temple, there is a grave that they claim is Kihachi’s, using his “nickname,” 合羽屋川太郎 Kappaya Kawatarō. 川太郎 or 河太郎, both read Kawatarō, is another word for the creature called kappa, but it also looks like a fairy tale name of the merchant class[vi]. So Kappaya Kawatarō means “kappa-selling kappa.” It’s a kind of Edo Era joke that clearly doesn’t stand the test of time.

The alleged grave of Kihahi Kawataro.
The alleged grave of Kihahi Kawataro.

The “A Bunch of Kappa Did It” Theory

In keeping with the previous theory, the area frequently flooded. Its closeness to Edo Bay made this an unavoidable tragedy. All living things near the bay suffer during an oceanic flood. Humans build the most, but all the other animals’ shelters are destroyed, too.

The prominent umbrella merchant, Kappaya Kihachi, noticed this and after his shit got fucked up bad for the last time, he organized an effort to make a controlled canal instead of the natural inlet that existed. Maybe it was hard year weather-wise or maybe ol’ Kihachi didn’t really have the resources to complete the project in a timely fashion, but the kappa who lived along the Sumida River noticed the slow progress. This was their home, too. So if the humans were going to alter the landscape, it had to be something that benefitted all the creatures in the flood plain.

Although the humans’ progress was slow, they were moved by Kihachi’s effort to stabilize the area. One night, when the workers quit earlier because of heavy rain, the kappa all felt obligated to help out – after all, the area would flood again. So, at night, after everyone went to sleep, hundreds of kappa (who are nocturnal by nature) finished building the canal and saved the area from another flood.

A less popular, slight variation on this story is that Kappaya Kawatarō was actually the name of certain kappa who lived in the area and built the waterworks that protected the area.

A bunch of filthy kappa digging a trench in the rain.
A bunch of filthy kappa digging a trench in the rain.

The “A Bunch of Country Bumpkin Samurai Did It” Theory

The 上屋敷 kami-yashiki lower residence of 新谷藩 Niiya Han Niiya Domain was located here. Niiya Han was an impoverished 支藩 shihan sub-domain of 大洲藩 Ōzu Han Ōzu Domain (modern Ehime Prefecture). There are two stories. The first is that because the domain was so poor, they had to supplement their income by manufacturing and selling 合羽 kappa raincoats. They would sell the kappa near the bridge. The other story is that after rainy days – when the sun came out – the lowest ranking retainers and foot soldiers would come here to hang dry the wet 合羽 kappa raincoats in a row on edge of the property. Since the bridge was right there, people called it “raincoat bridge.”

Kappabashi in the Meiji Era and Showa Era. You can see the actual bridge in the first picture. Does anyone know where I can find a bigger version of the top photograph?
Kappabashi in the Meiji Era and Showa Era.
You can see the actual bridge in the first picture.
Does anyone know where I can find a bigger version of the top photograph?

Which Theory is Correct?

There’s no way to tell. The word 河童 kappa a mythological river creature is forever tied to rivers in Japan. During the Sengoku Period, when the Japanese saw Portuguese missionaries wearing capas (capes), they seem to have seen some similarity to their own raincoats. To the Japanese who had contact with these missionaries, the word was brought into Japanese as かっぱ kappa and it was given the ateji 合羽 kappa which became raincoat.

I reckon the truth may lie a little in the middle. Obviously, the daimyō residence and raincoats stories the most plausible and there could very well have been a dude selling raincoats whose name name was Kihachi (there is a grave after all[vii]). Because of the water connection (ie; the river, the kappa, the raincoats), the connection to the mythological creatures could just be a play on words – an example of Edo Period “kawaii.”

But you can’t ignore the tradition. The three stories depend on each other – which makes for some great folklore!

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[i] Whether one culture is more “visual” than another culture is a way out of my league. But some have made the case.

[ii] Some claim that this was a reaction to an influx of foreign tourists during and after the 1964 Tōkyō Olympics. Because of a paucity of adept English speakers in Tōkyō and Kyōto there was much confusion in restaurants which typically used hand written, text only menus, which were illegible to foreign tourists. Tantalizing, visual representations of the menu would serve to attract customers as well as providing them a way to communicate their order clearly – by pointing. Problem solved.

[iii] This same Latin word, cāppa, also gave us “cap” (as in baseball cap), “accappella,” “chapel,”  “chaplain,” and “chaperone.” Italian, French, and Spanish have words for hair that also derive from this word. Although it isn’t Classic Latin, it’s got some serious etymological pedigree.

[iv] I’m just kidding, sort of. This isn’t a cheap shot at the Japanese. My Japanese sucks and the only reason I know the difference between a raincoat and a kappa is because I obsess on ridiculous topics like this. You’ll get no further in life in Japan knowing the difference between these two kanji. As the Japanese would say「 覚えなくていいじゃん!」 “You don’t have to remember them!” Any Japanese person would wipe the floor with my ass in kanji knowledge.

[v] Well, some accounts say that they eat human children, which I guess you could say is kind of antagonistic. They also seem to have had an obsession with human anuses.

[vi] The name really does look like a joke. But who knows, he could have been a poet and this was his pen name and all of this was the result of a few drinking parties…

[vii] The grave could be faked, of course, but… who knows?

6 thoughts on “What does Kappabashi mean?

  1. Hahaha, yeah, I’ve been wondering why he was gray too. Maybe the color faded over the centuries?

    And I don’t think he’s “a black Portuguese guy.” I’m pretty sure he’s an African slave.

  2. I suppose there’s no more bridge at Kappabashi, right? I have been there a few times and I do not recall any bridge or canal. Is there still a canal? And where is the site of the original bridge? Thanks
    By the way, this is amazing stuff that you have here. Gold!

      1. Cheers! I’m very interested in trying to visualise it, as I often make a pilgrimage to Kappabashi…well, for the kitchen town.

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