Sometimes called “living jewels” or “swimming art,” Nishikigoi (so-called “koi: ornamental carp”) were first bred some 200 years ago, between 1804 and 1830 (Edo era), in the inter-mountainous region known as Nijyumura-go [Twenty-village hamlet] stretching from Ojiya City to Yamakoshi district in Nagaoka City in Niigata Prefecture. The inhabitants of Nijyumura-go, since long ago, had bred carp in paddy fields as food. Nishikigoi are said to have arisen from spontaneous mutations of black carp resulting in red and mottled coloring. The Nishikigoi of today are the product of the repeated selection and breeding of mutants with superior color and patterns that has occurred in the two hundred years since.
Given the numerous articles related to Nishikigoi that appear in regional newspapers in Niigata and provincial documents during the early Meiji era (1870s), it is believed that Nishikigoi culture flourished in Niigata during this period. In 1889, an individual by the name of Kunizo Hiroi, in what is present-day Utogi in Ojiya City, developed a variety known as “Kohaku” [red and white], which is considered an exemplar of Nishikigoi. This marked the start of modern Nishikigoi breeding and subsequent development of countless varieties including “Taisho Sanshoku” [Taisho tri-color] (Sanke) and “Showa Sanshoku” [Showa tri-color], the majority of which have been bred in Niigata.
These local ornamental fish, developed in this manner through the efforts of the people in Niigata, eventually spread throughout Japan and, indeed, around the world. The event that served as a major impetus for expansion of Nishikigoi culture was the Tokyo Taisho Exposition held in Ueno Park, Tokyo in 1914. The people of Nijyumura-go exhibited 23 superior specimens of koi at the Expo. It is said that the Nishikigoi from Niigata received high praise, and, further, that they were a favorite of the crown prince Hirohito (the future Showa emperor). Sparked by this event, the Nishikigoi from Niigata spread rapidly throughout Japan. Overseas export of Nishikigoi also started at around the same time. In 1939, as a symbol of US-Japan friendship, Nishikigoi breeders from Niigata exhibited 300 Nishikigoi at the Golden Gate International Exposition, held in San Fransisco.
Japan experienced substantial economic growth in the 1960s, which was accompanied by a rise in the the economic power of regular Japanese citizens. In the midst of such growth, a boom in Nishikigoi culture occured, resulting in the emergence of numerous Nishikigoi keepers. Appreciation for and production of Nishikigoi spread explosively throughout the country. In 1968, the 1st All Japan Nishikigoi Show was held at the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, and, in the following year, the All Japan Nishikigoi Promotion Association, an organization representing Nishikigoi breeders and dealers across Japan, was established.
To mark this first-ever Nishikigoi Show, a commemorative publication titled “KOKUGYO: National Fish” was published. The honorary title of “National Fish” was proposed by Hideo Miya, an operator of a Nishikigoi wholesale business in Ojiya who had worked tirelessly to create a national organization of Nishikigoi breeders. The title “National Fish” has subsequently been used as a symbol of honor, appearing in the name of the “Kokugyo [National Fish] Prize” presented to the best Nishikigoi in each size classification at the All Japan Nishikigoi Show and as the logo on the All Japan Nishikigoi Promotion Association member badges.
Nishikigoi, born in Niigata and now the national fish, has become the “world’s ornamental fish,” beloved by countless fans at home and overseas. The term “koi” has become common usage in many parts of the world, used to refer to Nishikigoi. In the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and elsewhere, Nishikigoi are known simply as “koi.” Starting from its humble beginnings some 200 years ago, Nishikigoi from Niigata are no longer beloved only by the Japanese as the epitome of Japanese aesthetics but have become a representative of ornamental fish around the globe.
Prof. Yutaka SUGA, the University of Tokyo