Koi are big business in Japan and 90 percent of the fish produced are exported. Hand-reared for their aesthetic qualities, koi have become a symbol of the country and a single prize specimen can sell for thousands of pounds. The fish recently hit the headlines worldwide when Donald Trump was snapped dumping a box of food into a Tokyo pond.
Beauty Parades for Fish
There are many koi competitions in Japan and these events are essentially beauty parades but are taken extremely seriously. Judges in sharp suits examine all of the fish on display and the competitions can take place in the street. But how to the judges assess which are the winning fish?
Hinkaku - A Special Quality
Koi are prized for their colour and patterns but it is the shape and size of the fish which accounts for 60 per cent of the marks in the competitions. Colour and contrast account for 30 per cent of the score and the remaining 10 per cent is awarded for "hinkaku". This is a concept which is difficult to define and there is no English equivalent for the word which refers to character, dignity and prestige. When it comes to koi, "hinkaku" is the presence or aura of the fish which the judges can evidently sense. "Hinkaku" is a special quality which the fish either have or don't have and are born with. It's like charisma or star quality in people. Breeders select young fish which they believe possess "hinkaku" and nurture them for many years. Unfortunately, the young koi which fail to impress the breeders are often sold to produce tropical fish feed.
The superior specimens are retained or sold to foreign investors who often leave their fish in the hands of the Japanese breeders so they can be entered in the most prestigious Japanese competitions. Single specimens have sold for as much as $265, 000. But enthusiasts don't tend to see carp as a way to make money. They are simply prepared to spend money in order to enjoy their hobby.
All Japan Koi Show
The largest of the koi competitions is the All Japan Koi Show which is held in Tokyo each year. The huge event attracts up to 3, 000 fish and the show vats create an incredible sight. Judging takes place before the public open days during which thousands of people visit to view the specimens. Grand Champions at the show only ever come from Sanke, Kohaku and Showa (the koi that make up the Gosanke class). These are the Koi that will always win the major awards because they are the most difficult Koi to breed due to the required pattern, body and quality. In 2017, the Grand Champion at the show was a 97cm Kohaku which was 7 years old and owned by Daishiro Shirasaka and bred at Sakai Fish Farm. The show takes place in February each year if you fancy visiting but only Japanese fish can be entered.