Press Esc to close

Priceless Japanese fish make a splash

Agence France-Presse, Jan 13 2018, 23:31 IST
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows nishikigoi koi carp being bred for future contests at the Kurihara Fish Farm in Kazo, Saitama prefecture. Hand-reared for their colour and beauty, koi carp have become an iconic symbol of Japan that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even participate in fishy beauty contests. / AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA

This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows nishikigoi koi carp being bred for future contests at the Kurihara Fish Farm in Kazo, Saitama prefecture. Hand-reared for their colour and beauty, koi carp have become an iconic symbol of Japan that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even participate in fishy beauty contests. / AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA

Hand-reared for their colour and beauty, koi carp have become an iconic symbol of Japan that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even participate in fishy beauty contests.

The nation's koi carp were brought to the world's attention when visiting US President Donald Trump was snapped unceremoniously dumping the last of a box of feed into a palace pond in Tokyo.

But the fish have for decades been popular in Japan, where top breeders take their most prized specimens (known as "nishikigoi") to highly competitive "beauty parades."

At one such competition in Tokyo, judges in sharp suits, notebooks in hand, stride around tanks lined up along a pedestrian street where the valuable koi strut their stuff.

They come in all the colours of the rainbow: pearly white, bright red, cloudy-grey, dark blue, gleaming golden yellow. But it is the curvature of the fish that accounts
for 60% of the final score, explained competition organiser Isamu Hattori, who runs Japan's main association for breeders of koi carp. Colour and contrast make up another 30%, he says.

And the final 10%? "Hinkaku" -- a concept that is tricky to define and even harder to judge, best translated as the "presence" or "aura" of the fish.

"'Hinkaku'. It's either there in the genes at birth, or it's not," mused Mikinori Kurikara, a koi breeder in Saitama, north of Tokyo, who says he can spot it in fish when they reach eight or nine months old.

"Put it this way, it's like looking after your own children every day. You care for your kids and want them to grow healthy. In the same way, you take care of these fish, appreciate them and adore them," he says. At his farm, thousands of tiny "nishikigoi" (coloured carp) dart around deep basins of carefully purified water, meticulously divided by age and colour.

"It's a really delicate job, really difficult. Everything matters: the ground, the water quality, the food," explained the 48-year-old, who took over the farm from his father and is training his son, half his age, in the subtle arts of koi breeding.

"We have many secrets," he adds mischievously. "But even if we let them slip, it wouldn't work. You have to be able to feel it." These days, any self-respecting traditional Japanese garden has plenty of colourful koi gracing its ponds, but it is a relatively recent tradition.

Around 200 years ago, villagers in the mountainous region around Niigata (in the north-west of Japan) started to practice genetic engineering without knowing what they were doing. For the first time, they began to cross-breed rare colourful carp, not for food but for pure aesthetical value.

The craze for nishikigoi gradually took over the whole of Japan and then spread into other parts of Asia.

Today, koi is big business and Japanese exports are booming -- 90% of domestic production is exported and sold at auction. In 2016, Japan exported a record 295 tonnes of koi carp, generating turnover of 3.5 billion yen ($31 million), an increase of almost 50% from 2007, according to Japan's agriculture ministry.

As for individual carp, "the prices have become insane," said carp association boss Hattori. "Today, a two-year-old carp can sell for 30 million yen each ($265,000) whereas 10 years ago, two million yen was already a very good price," he says.

Like racehorse owners, many foreign owners leave their prized possessions
in their Japanese farms so they can compete in the most prestigious fishy pageants, which are only open to domestic rearers.

Go to Top

More from this section
Photo Gallery
People celebrate Latthmaar Holi in Barsana near Mathura on Saturday...

People celebrate Latthmaar Holi in Barsana near Mathura on Saturday...

An olive ridley turtle makes nest to lay eggs during mass nesting at Rushikulya of Ganjam...

An olive ridley turtle makes nest to lay eggs during mass nesting at Rushikulya of Ganjam...

A girl with umbrella sells vegetables during light rains, at the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar...

A girl with umbrella sells vegetables during light rains, at the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar...

Actor Rani Mukherji poses with differently-abled children during Hichki Teachers Award...

Actor Rani Mukherji poses with differently-abled children during Hichki Teachers Award...

Artists perform on the ocassion of 'Fag Mahotsav' ahead of Holi festival at Govind Dev Ji Temple...

Artists perform on the ocassion of 'Fag Mahotsav' ahead of Holi festival at Govind Dev Ji Temple...

People celebrate Latthmaar Holi during the Latthmaar Holi celebrations, in Barsana near...

People celebrate Latthmaar Holi during the Latthmaar Holi celebrations, in Barsana near...

Policemen are surrounded by teargas during an anti-facism demonstration in Milan, Italy. Reuters

Policemen are surrounded by teargas during an anti-facism demonstration in Milan, Italy. Reuters

A teakwood display team of Army Service Corps displays their skills during a horse show at...

A teakwood display team of Army Service Corps displays their skills during a horse show at...

A teakwood display team of Army Service Corps displays their skills during a horse show at ...

A teakwood display team of Army Service Corps displays their skills during a horse show at ...

Congress President Rahul Gandhi, Karnataka Chief Minister M Siddaramaiah, Senior leader...

Congress President Rahul Gandhi, Karnataka Chief Minister M Siddaramaiah, Senior leader...

Like us on Facebook

Copyright 2017, The Printers (Mysore) Private Ltd., 75, M.G Road, Post Box 5331, Bengaluru - 560001
Tel: +91 (80) 25880000 Fax No. +91 (80) 25880523
Powered by Yodasoft Technologies Pvt. Ltd.