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It’s hard to believe that the common carp has been developed in to arguably the most expensive ornamental fish in the world, namely the koi. There is a lot of information available on koi history and they don’t all agree on when koi were first introduced. One of the reasons is that the original creators of koi were isolated farmers that did not keep written records

The word koi in Japanese means carp and there are many varieties of carp. Nishikigoi means brocaded carp and those are the beautiful fish we enjoy today. For purposes of this discussion, we will refer to koi because of the universally accepted reference to koi (outside Japan) when referring to nishikigoi. Koi are descendants of the common carp, Cyprinus Carpio. Carp were originally native to Eastern Europe and Persia, but were introduced to Europe, North America, South America, Asia and other areas of the world to serve as food for people who were engaged in the business of settling new areas, as was the case when carp were brought to the "New World." So, when you find information relating to Koi in Japan dating back to 200 BC, that is when the invading Chinese brought the common black carp to Japan. Magoi is the Japanese word for the common black carp (Cyprinus carpio) and this is the fish that all Nishikigoi descended from. Today, the Japanese term for a wild carp is Magoi. The three naturally occurring color mutations of the wild carp are Tetsu (Iron Magoi, ) close to the black on Showa, Doro (Mud Magoi) Chagoi (brown koi) and Ogon (metallic koi), and Asagi (Asagi Magoi) considered to be the original mutation responsible for development of kohaku, Sanke, Koromo and Shiro Bekko. Doitsugoi (German scaled Carp), brought to Japan from Europe to be used as food carp around 100 years ago.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that rice farmers in the Niigata prefecture began to collect and breed carp with color mutations of red, white and yellow.

The Japanese use the reign of their emperors when referring to historical events. This is also true of the development of koi.

Bunka and Bunsei Era (1804-1829): During this era the first koi with red were produced in Japan. At first, their red markings appeared on their cheeks. White koi were also produced and crossed with the koi that had red cheeks. The end result was white koi with red abdomens.

TENPO ERA(1830 to 1843):  Breeding efforts continued to strive for changes that would make the koi more appealing to the eye. White koi with the red located on the forehead (Zukinkaburi), a completely red head (Menkaburi) red lips (Kuchibeni) and finally red spots on the back (Satassa) were developed.

Meija Era (1868-1912): This is the era when the Kohaku were developed. This is also the era when carp from Germany were first introduced to Japan and bred with the Nishikigoi. This is where the Doitsu (German) varieties come from. There are three separate types of doitsu scalation. One type has no scales and is called the leather carp. The other has large scales along each side of the dorsal fin and along the lateral line only (mirror carp). Yoroi (armour scales) or Ishigaki (Stone wall scales) are partially scaled koi that have scales other thanalong the lateral and dorsal lines in jumbled patterns. These Yoroi koi are not considered to be of high enough quality to be worth entering in competitive shows.

Taisho Era (1912-1926): This is when the Taisho Sanke was perfected. It is a white koi with a red and black pattern. Sanke means tri-colored. Sanke may have appeared at the end of the Meija Era. Shiro Utsuri (black with white markings) was introduced at the end of this era. In 1914 some of the most beautiful varieties were shown at an exposition in Tokyo where some of these colored carp were presented to Crown Prince Hirohito. This is when the popularity of koi started to expand.

Showa Era (1927-1989): Many feel the Showa Era had by far the largest impact on koi history in terms of development and improvement in the quality of existing types of koi. The final member of the "Big Three," the Showa (black koi with red and white pattern) was first produced in 1927. Showa were created by crossing Ki Utsuri (black koi with yellow pattern) and Kohaku (white koi with red pattern). Because the yellow and red color mix resulted in a yellowish brown pattern, improvements were sought to improve the color to a better quality red.

Starting in 1964, a gentleman named Kobayashi began accomplishing the improvements in red quality. Today the Kobayashi bloodline of Showa is the main quality bloodline that koi breeders are using to improve Showa.

This is the last of the varieties referred to as Gosanke (the big three) which includes the Kohaku, Sanke, and Showa. These are the three varieties of koi most prized by the Japanese and advanced koi hobbyist all over the world with the Kohaku being number one.During this time koi keeping went from being a local hobby to a national hobby and subsequently to big business. Koi farmers moved from raising koi as a hobby to making it a full time career. With an expanding market and the number of koi farmers rising, competition and a desire to create new types of koi led to many improvements. The hobby and sales spread worldwide during the Showa Era as well.

Heisei Era (1989-Present): There are koi farmers today who would like to name a new koi in honor of this Emperor's era. Some breeders have coined the Doitsu Yamato Nishiki (the leather German scaled metallic Sanke) with the name Heisi Nishiki. Not all farmers of this type of koi have adopted this name and still refer to them as Doitsu Yamato-Nishiki. Some breeders pursue the beauty of Nishikigoi with an emphasis on Gosanke (Kohaku, Taisho Sanshoku (Sanke) and Showa), while some are always trying to create a new variety. In my view an exiting prospect. Some breeders frequently do crosses between varieties, creating confusion at benching time when showing koi, for example Showa x Sanke.  

The modern koi. The koi we see today has been refined to such an extent that the emphasis in appreciating koi has moved from a nice patterned koi to a superb animal that is judged on numerous aspects. The following should be considered.

The basic conformation of the koi, namely the shape of the head, body and fins. All of these in should be in relative proportion.

Appearance and texture of the skin.

Pattern and pattern edges, pattern balance and quality of colour.

Specific requirements to each variety

The quest to improve the growth rate and the body shape of certain blood-lines, have prompted some enterprising breeders to reintroduce Magoi into their breeding programes. This has rendered spectacular results. The elusive milestone of breeding Go-sanke of one meter long was reached in the last few years! Who knows where it will end?

Breeding has in some instances also taken a step backward. To breed sanke to Sanke, Showa to Showa and Kohaku to Kohaku for example, is unfortunately not an easy process and the percentage quality fry from  such spawnings are normally low. Understandably some smaller breeders have resorted to a “Liquorice all sorts” approach to make breeding koi more profitable. Mass spawning between various varieties has created a high percentage of pretty small fish with limited value when they are mature. Culling techniques, especially in western countries, also allows for inferior fry to be sold to the general public

Last Updated on Monday, 16 December 2013 13:40