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Luxury carp making comeback outside Japan

Chunichi Shimbun

The popularity of nishikigoi carp is growing outside Japan.

Known as the “swimming jewel,” one nishikigoi can fetch up to tens of millions of yen.

Exports from the Tokai region, an area that actively breeds and raises Japanese brocaded carp, grew to ¥264 million in 2015, 20 times higher than in 2010.

After purchase, many foreign buyers ask local fish farms to raise their nishikigoi for them and enter them into competitions, so sales transactions likely involve a greater sum of money.

“From fall to spring, the colors of nishikigoi become more vibrant, so we’ll be even busier with more foreign visitors coming to view them,” said Ryuki Narita, 42, CEO of Narita Koi Farms Japan, the biggest breeding farm and seller of koi (carp) in Japan.

Based in Komaki, Aichi Prefecture, the company sells 300,000 nishikigoi each year, 70 percent to 80 percent of which are purchased from more than 30 areas outside Japan, including Hong Kong and Indonesia.

A Chinese proverb says, “the carp has leaped through the dragon’s gate,” and nishikigoi have always been considered auspicious creatures in China and Southeast Asia.

Many koi enthusiasts in Asia ask Japanese farms to raise their fish and enter them in competitions in Japan.

The price of a nishikigoi fry starts at ¥500, but that will jump to several thousand yen by the time it is 2 years old and has reached 40 to 50 cm in length.

If the carp develops a beautiful pattern, its value can increase to tens of millions of yen.

Unlike manufactured products, no two carp have similar patterns, so fans often say, “you may be able to afford a Ferrari, but you may not be able to get the koi you like.”

“It is hard to tell how koi will turn out because it depends on the breeding environment and the DNA of the parents, which can be complicated. It is important to look after them carefully. It almost feels like we are raising pop idols,” said Narita.

According to the Finance Ministry, total exports of nishikigoi amounted to ¥3.67 billion in 2015, almost 30 percent higher than in 2010.

The leading importer is Hong Kong, with ¥1.2 billion, followed by the Netherlands, Germany and Indonesia.

Nagoya Customs, which covers the Tokai region and Nagano Prefecture, now has a market share of 7 percent — after watching growth surge 20 times over the past five years.

There are also setbacks. The number of carp enthusiasts in Japan is declining as hobbies change over time, and there are fewer households with ponds in their gardens.

As a result, many fish farmers in the Tokai region, including Narita Koi Farms Japan, are bolstering sales in Europe and among wealthy customers in Asia, including in Vietnam and Malaysia, where the popularity of nishikigoi is climbing.

The largest market is China. In 2003, the country halted koi imports from Japan to avoid spreading the koi herpes virus, but the safety of the fish has since been verified and imports will resume soon.

“This will create a massive business opportunity,” said a representative from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

Koi are bred by mating fish with different color patterns. It became popular as an ornamental fish during the Meiji Era.

There are many fish farms in Niigata and Hiroshima prefectures and in Kyushu, but 10 percent of them are operating in the central Tokai region.

Carp titles won at the annual All Japan Koi Show in Tokyo are considered to be the most prestigious awards.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Sept. 15.