The colorful lure of carp

In the freshwater world of ornamental fish, legions of fans are hooked on its nishikigoi stars

by Edan Corkill

Two milestones were achieved at this year’s All-Japan Show for Nishikigoi, or ornamental carp, which was held last month in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture.

The first was as spectacular as it was bizarre: The fish that was named Grand Champion was a giant, literally. While most nishikigoi are around 60 cm in length, Ryujin measured an astonishing 107 cm. She was the biggest champion ever and quite possibly the largest fish of her variety that has ever graced the waters of this planet.

Yet, while it was Ryujin that attracted the fanfare at the meet, a second milestone was also achieved — one that is likely to prove far more significant in the history of nishikigoi-keeping, which has seen declining levels of participation in Japan. For the first time in the All-Japan Show’s 45-year history, one of the event’s 40 judges was a foreigner.

Technically, the so-called All-Japan Show for Nishikigoi should be prefaced with the letters ZNA, which stand for Zen-Nippon Airinkai. Don’t even think of asking what that is in English. The first rule of nishikigoi is that the lingua franca is Japanese. Just like judo matches at the Olympics are refereed by a “shinpan”, at nishikigoi shows — be they in Sao Paolo, Sydney, London, New York, or Bandung, Indonesia — the terminology is Japanese. Everyone knows that ZNA refers to the Japanese national association of nishikigoi hobbyists, and everyone knows that their annual show is the most important in the world.

Actually, that’s not quite true. There is another show that rivals ZNA’s for importance — the national championships of the Zen-Nihon Nishikigoi Shinkokai (All-Japan Nishikigoi Promotion Association). The difference is that this association is for professional breeders and dealers, while ZNA is for amateurs.

Keiichi Iwahashi is the vice chairman of ZNA. He also served as the head judge at the recent national show and, incidentally, is a former vice president of construction company giant Kajima Corporation. He took a few minutes out of his judging duties to talk with The Japan Times.

“Our association, which started 45 years ago, is under the auspices of the Agency for Cultural Affairs,” he explained. “Our job is to celebrate and spread the wonderful Japanese cultural asset that is nishikigoi.”

To this end, ZNA holds local, regional and national shows for nishikigoi in Japan, and also accredits and authorizes ZNA “chapters” overseas and sends Japanese judges to adjudicate at their shows. As there are currently ZNA chapters in 16 countries, most of the association’s 40 or so top-level judges travel overseas at least three times a year to lend expert Japanese eyes to the assessment of local fish.

ZNA’s activities also include the donation of nishikigoi to public parks and gardens — both in Japan and abroad.

“Back in the 1970s when Queen Elizabeth II visited Japan, she was so taken by nishikigoi that we gave some as a present to Buckingham Palace,” Iwahashi said. “They’re still there now.”

Iwahashi didn’t say whether the Queen signed up to join the ZNA, but he did note that of its 10,000 or so members, 40 percent are now non-Japanese. R yujin, the 107-cm grand champion from this year’s ZNA show, has splotches of red and black spread evenly over her long, white, torpedo-like body.

With the All-Japan Show’s judging completed during the first morning of the two-day event, Ryujin spent most of her time in the center of the venue, Izumo Dome, in a blue tarpaulin pool about 2 meters across. Gracefully turning this way and that, she resembled a model on a catwalk, happily obliging the constant ring of visitors forever trying to frame her for photographs.

“Nishikigoi look best from the front,” one old-timer advised a young visitor. “You shouldn’t photograph them from behind.”

Ryujin’s color pattern identifies her as a Taisho Sanshoku, a variety that in English you might describe as a “Taisho Era Tricolor” — if, that is, you were allowed to Anglicize the terminology, which you aren’t.

As the name suggests, the variety was first established through selective breeding during the Taisho Era (1912-26). It is distinct from the two other popular multicolored varieties, Showa Sanshoku, which has white and red splotches on a black base, and Kohaku, which has only red splotches on a white base.

While the Showa Sanshoku is one of the newest varieties, having been established in the Showa Era (1926-89), Kohaku (which literally means “red and white” in Japanese) is one of the oldest varieties in existence and is thought to date from the middle part of the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

For all their colorful flair, nishikigoi belong to the species common carp (Cyprinus carpio), a dun-colored native of Asia and Eastern Europe that is now found on every continent (except Antarctica) and in at least 59 countries worldwide; in some they are regarded as a food source as well as sport fish. It is believed the species was brought to Japan, where it was named koi, thousands of years ago.

Nishikigoi lore has it that in the 1820s some farmers in the village of Ojiya in present-day Niigata Prefecture began to zero in on the few individual specimens that exhibited slight natural color mutations, then selectively bred from them until white, red, gold, and then eventually multicolored variations appeared.

While common goldfish (Carassius auratus) — a member of the same freshwater Cyprinidae family as common carp — had been bred for color in China since the second century, it is generally accepted that those Ojiya farmers were the first to deliberately manipulate carp for their color.

One of the first varieties to become stabilized was the Asagi, with blue-tinged scales on their backs and red-tinged scales on their bellies. Kohaku followed, with red blotches on a white base.

However, Niigata’s gradually diversifying spectrum of fish went largely unnoticed until the 1914 Tokyo Exposition, where they caused a sensation and their popularity exploded domestically.

Increased selective breeding after that led to the establishment of more varieties: In addition to the Taisho and Showa Sanshoku, there were Utsurimono (black with splotches of red, white or gold); Ogon (completely gold); and Benigoi (completely red).

Competitive shows for nishikigoi began around the time of the Tokyo Exposition, and with them emerged the complex criteria by which the ornamental fish are judged.

ZNA Vice Chairman Iwahashi explained those criteria in reference to this year’s Grand Champion, Ryujin.

“The most basic criterion is the body shape,” he said. “The body of a nishikigoi should be symmetrical and evenly tapered. You can’t have its tummy sticking out or anything like that.”

The next criterion, he continued, is the color. “Ryujin is a Taisho, so the base color is supposed to be white. It must be a completely clean white, without blemishes.

“Next, you look at the splotches of red. It is best if the red is in several patches spread over the length of the body.”

Meanwhile, the splotches of black, he said, should appear on top of the white areas, or on the edges between the red and the white.

Each of the colors should be vivid. “They need to be rich and even,” Iwahashi stressed.

Other owners gathered at the ZNA show explained that the fish are also judged for the luster of their skin and for the way they swim. They have to be able to strut their stuff — “like a dog at a dog show,” as one owner put it.

When all of these features coincide, you have a specimen that, according to various owners gathered at the ZNA show, is a “living work of art,” “graceful,” and “calming to watch.”

Ryujin not only met these requirements, she was also huge. Her 107-cm length made her the largest multicolored variety of nishikigoi anyone there — or likely anywhere — had ever seen.

“For a long time, our dream was to see a nishikigoi over 1 meter in length,” said Iwahashi. “You know, we’ve been doing this for 45 years. When we started, the fish were up to about 55 cm to 60 cm. They’ve gradually become bigger, but this is the first time we’ve cracked 1 meter.”

In another sense, too, the hobbyist owner of Ryujin had also “cracked” a sizable hole in his own wallet — a ¥5 million hole, if rumors circulating at the event were to be believed. But the reflected glory of ownership notwithstanding, the real kudos for breaking the 1-meter record was accorded to the breeder, a decade-old company named Momotaro-koi Farm in Okayama Prefecture.

Along with Hiroshima-based Sakai Fish Farm, Momotaro has come to dominate the competitive nishikigoi industry of late. Between them, they have bred four of the last five Grand Champions. They have also prompted a seismic shift in the nishikigoi world from its roots in Niigata, in Japan’s north, to Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures in the west of Honshu — with many fish owners speculating that those warmer, more southerly climes make it easier to produce larger fish.

However, Michio Maeda, the president of Momotaro, puts the size down to something else.

“It’s basically the bloodlines,” he said on the sidelines of the ZNA show. “That’s the only secret.”

Asked who Ryujin’s parents were, he became slightly reticent. “They weren’t famous fish,” he said.

With more than six hectares of ponds and tanks, Momotaro has the capacity to raise a staggering 13 million to 15 million fry each year. (A single common carp lays about 40,000 eggs at a time.)

“As the fish grow, we select the best ones and discard the others,” Maeda said.

Just like breeding for color varieties, breeding for size is largely a question of numbers. The more fish you can raise, the greater the chance of finding one or two abnormally large ones that you can then breed from.

Diet is also an important factor in determining a fish’s size, although Maeda wouldn’t go into details about what he feeds his fish — other than to say they eat “normal” food.

If so, Ryujin was most probably raised on a diet of commercial foods — generally pellets offering a mixture of proteins, carbohydrates, amino acids and fats that might also include lipids or wheat germ, to encourage growth, as well as spirulina, a blue-green algae added to improve skin color. In the wild, common carp, which are omnivorous, will eat anything from marine plants and algae to earthworms, tadpoles and small crustaceans.

Asked whether he thought he could raise even bigger fish than Ryujin, Maeda laughed and said, “We’re still trying.”

Meanwhile, others at the ZNA event suggested that now Ryujin has surpassed the Holy Grail of ornamental carp by becoming a “meter-plus Grand Champion,” the pursuit of size will probably come to an end.

“I think you’ll see a return to smaller fish with greater emphasis placed on patterns and color,” said ZNA Managing Director Shigeru Kato. Referring to the unwieldy weight of the supersize fish — over 20 kg for one the likes of Ryujin — he added, “We’re getting to the point where they’re just too big to be able to handle.” A mong the owners competing at the show were several non-Japanese, most of whom had established relationships with specialist dealers in their own countries, who helped them purchase and manage their collections.

One such dealer was 31-year-old Briton Simon Austin. With his closely cropped hair and stylish jacket, Austin would have looked at home in ritzy Tokyo districts like Omotesando or Roppongi. Striding between the dozens of blue pools housing the 1,300 entrants at the Izumo Dome, he cut a dashing figure.

“I like the uniqueness of it,” he said of his business. “There aren’t many jobs that offer this. I come to Japan for weeks on end and sell nishikigoi for a living. That’s not a bad way to go.”

Austin was at the ZNA meet with one of his clients, a British collector named Peter Lewis, to watch one of their fish, a 67-cm Kohaku named Pearl, compete.

The British dealer explained that 13 months earlier he had bought Pearl during a trip to a Niigata breeder, Taniguchi Koi Farm, and then sold it to Lewis, for £5,000 (¥715,000).

Although Pearl was still young — at 2, she was six years from full maturity — both Austin and the breeder recognized that she had the potential to be a competition winner.

“Pearl is neither skinny nor fat, so she’s got the body — the supermodel status — and her skin quality is exceptional,” Austin explained.

As is the norm with outstanding nishikigoi, Austin and Lewis agreed to leave Pearl at Taniguchi Koi Farm so she could compete in shows in Japan.

Austin explained that the fish will only reach their full potential if you leave them with the breeders. “Also, once you take them out of Japan, then you can’t bring them back to compete in shows here — there’s a ban on entering imported koi,” he said.

Thus, owners of high-grade nishikigoi end up paying breeders to feed and look after the fish they have already paid small fortunes to purchase. (One foreign collector — not Lewis — estimated his annual outlay for “servicing his hobby” was ¥3 million to ¥5 million.)

Just weeks after becoming the property of Lewis, Pearl was entered in the 2008 ZNA All-Japan Show — in the “50-bu Kohaku” category, which is for Kohaku up to 50 cm in length.

Pearl won that category and went on to win the 50-bu Rin’oh Prize, which is fought out between the top 50-cm Kohaku, Showa Sanshoku and Taisho Sanshoku fish.

While both Austin and Lewis were thrilled with Pearl’s success, it brought neither of them financial reward, as there are no cash prizes at ZNA competitions.

“Of course, it’s good for business to be able to advertise that I have dealt a prize-winning nishikigoi,” said Austin, whose Web site (www.nipponnishikigoi.com), sure enough still proclaims Pearl’s achievements.

Unfortunately, however, 2009 was not Pearl’s year, and she bowed out of the competition early.

“She is small for her category this year,” Austin had explained before the judging. Pearl had grown 17 cm during the year, to reach a length of 67 cm, but that put her among the smaller fish in the “70-bu Kohaku” category, which is restricted to specimens between 65 cm and 70 cm in length. “It’s best to come in just short of the maximum length,” Austin explained.

Pearl will be kept in Japan until she is about 8 or 9 years old, when she will be big enough to compete in the top size category, for fish over 85 cm in length. By convention, it is only the largest fish that have a shot at being named Grand Champion.

“Once Pearl has won some big competitions in Japan, then she might be brought back to England,” Austin said. “We’ll compete her at the local British shows for a while and then after that she might go back to the owner’s home.”

If so, Pearl can expect to enjoy around a decade of peaceful repose in her owner’s private pond — nishikigoi generally live for about two decades, although some centenarians have also been documented. T here were several other dealers trailing non-Japanese clients at the ZNA All-Japan Show.

Tony Prew, from Oregon Koi Gardens in the United States, had brought a hobbyist, as had Danny Deschrijver, from Danny’s Koi Farm, in Bruges, Belgium. British freelance journalist Steve Gibbins wasn’t with a client, but he said he regularly organizes tours to Japan. Like Austin, each of these visitors had arrived in Japan a few weeks prior to the ZNA show in order to spend time visiting breeders and buying fish.

There were also several visitors from other Asian countries. These visitors included Saravut Prapakamol, secretary of the Koi Keepers’ Society of Thailand, an official chapter of the ZNA.

During a 10-day stay in Japan, Saravut added 20 fish to his existing collection of 15. “I’m going to leave half of them in Japan and take half back to Bangkok,” he said. “I want to see how the different environment affects how they grow up.”

To meet the requirements of overseas buyers like these, most of the major breeders have English-speaking staff, English-language Web sites and, in some cases, even non-Japanese trainees.

Momotaro President Maeda admitted that more than half of his clients are now from overseas. “They have increased gradually — both Westerners and Asians — over the last 10 years,” he said.

While the global financial crisis and the recent substantial appreciation of the yen have dented Western collectors’ appetites for Japanese nishikigoi, Asian buyers are showing no signs of letting up.

“The market is very strong in Asia now,” said Austin. “They are the big money-spenders — not us.”

ZNA’s Iwahashi echoed that sentiment. “In China there are a lot of rich people nowadays,” he said. “We go over there to judge their competitions and we recognize all these nishikigoi that have previously won championships in Japan.”

Another indication of the growing internationalization of the nishikigoi market is the increased interest in their health issues among foreign veterinarians.

Oregon State University-based vet Tim Miller-Morgan attended the ZNA show for the first time this year, and explained: “We’re running a program to train vets so they can add ornamental fish to their practice,” he said. He noted that most problems — including Koi Herpes Virus, which decimated several farms in Niigata in 2003 — can be controlled through proper screening before purchase or export.

Like the breeders and the international veterinarian community, ZNA is also undergoing a transformation, starting with its membership.

The truth is the ZNA has been bleeding members for years now. Its current total of just under 10,000 is around two-thirds of what it was a decade ago. Importantly, however, its foreign membership has remained strong, and it now numbers around 4,000.

To service those foreign nishikigoi fans, ZNA produce a monthly glossy magazine in English, titled Nichirin. Detailing results of all ZNA-affiliated competitions worldwide, it is considered the hobbyist’s bible.

And, ever so slowly, ZNA has allowed more and more non-Japanese to reach the upper echelons of its tightly controlled hierarchy of judges.

That’s where Richard Tan comes in. Earlier this year, the Singaporean became only the third foreign Certified Judge, and at the recent ZNA national show, he became the first non-Japanese ever to join the ranks of the event’s 40 judges.

“I’ve been collecting nishikigoi myself for 30 years and I’ve been working my way up the ranks of the judges for 10 years,” Tan explained.

The lowest grade of judge in the ZNA hierarchy is known as the Local Certified Judge. “That allows you to judge in competitions in your local region, so for me that would mean Malaysia, the Philippines and so on,” explained Tan. There are 46 foreign Local Certified Judges.

The next step, which comes after about five years of regular judging and attendance at judging seminars held in Japan, is up to the rank of Assistant Certified Judge (there are 15 non-Japanese). With this qualification, you are allowed to judge at regional competitions in Japan. After another five years, you are finally awarded the status of Certified Judge.

A collector himself, Tan suspects it was his long-term commitment to the hobby that resulted in his becoming the first foreign Certified Judge invited to adjudicate at the ZNA national show.

“It’s not who you are but that you are interested and involved,” he said. “I am one of the most consistent nishikigoi keepers outside of Japan.”

ZNA judges are allowed to enter their own fish in the national competitions on which they adjudicate. Asked whether there was ever any disagreement during the judging process, he said, “By and large all the judges have the same standards and we all reach an agreement.”

Tan understands the symbolic importance of his being the first foreign judge at the event.

“The number of Japanese participants in the national show is dropping,” he said. “The big players are all getting old. You need the foreigners to fill the gap.”

ZNA Vice President Iwahashi agreed, saying, “We are very enthusiastic about getting more foreigners to participate.” He seemed to envision a time when all of the ZNA chapters overseas would have their own Certified Judges. “Eventually we won’t have to always go overseas to judge the shows,” he said. A s the two-day ZNA show drew to a close, a prize-giving ceremony was held and all the owners of division winners were called up to accept their trophies.

One of the highest awards, that of Mature Champion, went to a 75-cm Kohaku owned by an Indonesian collector, Jongkie Budiman. He wasn’t in attendance, so a representative of Sakai Fish Farm, who had been entrusted with the fish, stepped up to accept the award.

Meanwhile, the contingent of non-Japanese owners and dealers stood around discussing when they’d return. Most planned to attend the breeders’ national event in Niigata in February.

Finally, the fish were moved from their blue tarpaulin pools into triple-layered plastic bags and boxes, and then into trucks for the return journey to their home pools.

Many of the breeders appeared to be using the same sort of box — a type they clearly used when exporting the fish overseas. It was emblazoned on one side with a warning in English: “Live koi carp.” And on the end there was one more note: “From Japan.”