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Koi Facts by Diane C. Jay


Today’s koi have a long tradition.  It probably began with importing common carp from the Ancient East over 2,000 years ago that spread to Japan by way of China and Korea. Originally these carp were intended to be a food source in Japan, but some fish produced color mutations that were encouraged by selective breeding over the centuries. Japan is the first country to domesticate koi.  The cultured carp, called Nishikigoi (brocaded carp), were treasured as pets, while the carp used as a food source, called koi were eaten. The ornamental fish go by the name koi throughout the world, except in Japan, where they are known as Nishikigoi and only the food carp are called koi.


Koi symbolize strength, perseverance and courage. Because they are strong swimmers and extremely energetic, koi tear up plants and make waterways murky as they thrash about. Koi enthusiasts can tame the aggressive fish to the point that they will eat out of the owners’ hands.  The pond waters are controlled with filters and frequent plantings to remedy the problem of stirred up sediment. 


Just the same, the threat of the wilderness being invaded by domesticated koi has caused concern in some places. For example, it is illegal to have koi in the state of Maine because they are considered a nuisance that threatens the native fish. 


On the other hand, Japan honors koi.  It is the national fish and Japanese families fly koi windsocks in May on Boy’s Day to express the wish that their sons will grow up to be as strong, steadfast and courageous as the fish.  Koi are a popular theme for tattoos for the same reason.  


The amazing energy of koi makes them durable. Some koi live for centuries and become family heirlooms. The oldest living koi on record died in 1977 at the age of 226.  


Koi have been the subject of riddles, games and legends.  One Chinese story tells us that any koi who manages to swim upstream through the Dragon’s Gate waterfall on the Yellow River will be transformed into a water dragon.  Love, wealth, success and friendship are further symbols for koi.


The hobby of koi keeping is popular all over the world.  Homeowners everywhere include koi ponds in their yards.  Many celebrities maintain private collections.  Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger, Ellen DeGeneres and Hugh Hefner are a few famous people who keep spectacular koi gardens.  In addition, koi ponds are built in a vast number of public places.  Most Japanese restaurants, many shopping malls and city parks provide a chance to see these gorgeous fish. 


The most enthusiastic collectors form koi clubs and invest fortunes in raising specimens that then compete in Koi Shows all over the world. One risk that owners run by investing in koi is that koi change color over their lifetime.  Diet, water temperature, the season and mysterious factors cause unpredictable color changes. Show-quality koi must display sharply defined patterns, unblemished white areas and meet many other rigorous standards depending on breed, but even winning bloodlines cannot ensure the outcome.  Despite the uncertainty, collectors persist since they can gain great rewards.  As recent as 2006, a champion koi sold for $365,000.


The red markings are known as Hi (pronounced he), the black patterns are called Sumi and white areas are Shiroje. The Kohaku, for example in my painting “Go Sanke” are the white fish with red patches.  This type often wins awards at the koi shows and is the most popular breed. 


The detail from my painting “Pyramid Koi” features a Sanke koi which is known by its 2, 3 or 4 large red areas and shiny black marks on a white base.  Sometimes Sanke fins have black stripes like the one I painted in “Go Sanke”.


Showa, like Sanke are also tri-colored koi, but display much more sumi. A Showa’s black markings are matte not shiny. Fins may have a black fan shape near the body, but not stripes.  I named one painting, “Showa”, for the pair in it.

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