“Kappa” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa is the story of a psychiatric patient who claims he once spent time in a land of water-loving creatures out of Japanese folklore. Most of Akutagawa’s contemporaries—as most Japanese readers today—would have been familiar with this famous folktale monster. A kappa is about three feet tall and, according to Patient No 23, weighs 20-30 pounds. It has webbed hands and feet, as well as a dish on top of its head that has to remain wet. The kappa also loves cucumbers and sumo wrestling. 

The story is fascinating for extra-textual reasons as well. Ryunosuke Akutagawa published Kappa in 1927. He was dead by his own hand only a few months later.

Kappa is a testament to how deeply cosmopolitan Taisho Japan really was.

On one level, Kappa is a scathing satire of contemporary Japan. (The first English translation was published in 1947 and subtitled, perhaps problematically, “Gulliver in Kimono”.) Most of the novel takes place in Kappa Land, where, according to Patient No 23, “civilization is not much different from ours—at least not from Japanese civilization”. In one particularly Swiftian moment, a kappa who is a “capitalist among capitalists” brags about the 40-50,000 factory workers who have recently been put out of work by “new contraptions”. Patient No 23 asks why he hasn’t seen any strikes or other kinds of complaints. “Well,” the capitalist responds, “We just eat ’em.”

Kappa is also a testament to how deeply cosmopolitan Taisho Japan really was. For example, Patient No 23 encounters a kappa who claims to be Übermensch—or perhaps, the narrator clarifies, “Überkappa”. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche famously used the term Übermensch in his 1883 Thus Spake Zarathustra for a superior man, able to rise above Christian morality. (The book was first translated into English in 1896 and Japanese around 1915; members of the Japanese intelligentsia like Akutagawa frequently read important European texts in the original language or English translation.)

Patient No 23’s friend Tok explains that art should exist for art’s sake and therefore artists must be Übermenschen who can go beyond good and evil. In Kappa Land, there is an entire Übermensch Club for poets, novelists, playwrights, critics, painters, musicians, and sculptors. Notably, artists would not normally qualify as Übermensch in Nietzche’s vision. Even as Kappa was being published in 1927, the Nazi Party was co opting and misapplying Nietzche’s work to justify the atrocities to come.

Even though it is a funny read, Kappa is a bleak tale to the end.

Kappa, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda (trans), Allison Markin Powell (trans) (New Directions, June 2023)
Kappa, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda (trans), Allison Markin Powell (trans) (New Directions, June 2023)

But regardless of Kappa’s sociological import, any reader who is aware of Akutagawa’s psychological illness and tragic death can’t avoid reading into the story an account of an author deeply troubled by existential questions.

In one scene, for example, Patient No 23 watches a friend’s wife give birth. The father speaks into “the mother’s genitals” and calls out, “Give some thought as to whether you’re going to be born into this world or not, and get back to us”.

The unborn child ponders and then responds, “I do not wish to be born. The hereditary mental illness of my father is bad enough—and besides, I believe that life as a kappa is a poor existence”.

The midwife ends the pregnancy, and the mother lets out “a heavy sigh of relief”.

Patient No 23 must also cope with the suicide of his friend, the poet Tok who thinks of himself as an Übermensch. The event is presented as the darkest of comedies.

Patient No. 23 and a friend hear a shot from the street. They run to Tok’s home only to find him toppled into a potted plant with a gun in his hand. According to Tok’s female companion, he was sitting at his desk writing when he shot himself. When his friends inspect his desk, they realize he was copying a passage from Mignon’s Song by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “Tok must have been quite burnt out on writing poetry,” says the friend. “Hence the suicide.”

For almost 100 years, many critics have read Tok as Akutagawa’s representation of himself in the text.


Even though it is a funny read, Kappa is a bleak tale to the end. Whereas most frame narratives like it would leave readers with the option of willing suspension of disbelief, Akutagawa quashes even that degree of hope. An unnamed doctor treating Patient No 23 breaks into the narrative. Patient No 23 claims to read from a volume of Tok’s poetry; the doctor insists the book is obviously a telephone book. When the patient describes a bouquet of flowers a kappa has brought as a gift, the doctor mercilessly verifies for the reader that there is nothing there.

Kappa has been translated into English before—in 1947 by Shiojiri Seichi, in 1967 by Kojima Takeshi, and in 1970 by Geoffrey Bownas. This new translation by Allison Markin Powell and Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda is a welcome reintroduction to an important and often-overlooked classic by one of Japan’s most important modern writers as it approaches the 100th anniversary of its publication.

Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.