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Koi Carp


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Koi - A Magnificent Obsession

          The many beautiful Koi varieties we know today are, in fact, all descendants of the black fishknown as Magoi.

          Although early records of koi (i.e. Common carp) date back some 2,500 years, their farm cultivation is much more recent. Colour mutations first appeared some two hundred years ago and by the end of the 19th century many of the varieties we know today had been established. However, it was not until the 20th century that koi-keeping as a hobby began to flourish. The development of road and rail links and, more particularly, the advancement of air travel, facilitated the transportation of koi, and these beautiful fish soon attracted a huge following in other parts of the world particularly in the USA and UK. Since the first days of the culture of nishikigoi - as fancy koi came to be known - many farmers have invested much time and effort in developing new varieties. Although Japan still leads the world, other countries are now producing koi for their own home markets, and it is probable that the most beautiful nishikigoi are yet to be seen.

          Contrary to common belief, koi are not indigenous to Japan. They originate from eastern Asia - in the Black, Azov, Caspian and Aral Seas - and from China, where the earliest written record of these fish is found. At his birth, the first son of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479? BC) was presented with a koi by King Shoko of Ro. Confucius named his son after this fish because it was considered to be a symbol of strength; allegedly, it was the only fish able to swim up the falls of the Yellow River. In 533 BC, a Chinese book entitled 'Yogyokyo' set out methods of breeding koi. At this time, colour variations were limited to red and grey. Since koi at this time were cultivated solely for food, however, such variations were not considered seriously in the ornamental sense.

          Koi were introduced to Japan with the invading Chinese, and the first account of them being kept in Japan, apparently by an Emperor, dates back to AD 200. From here, the story moves forward to the 17th century, when rice farmers of Yamakoshi go, a village in the Nugata prefecture on the north-western coast of mainland Japan, introduced carp into their irrigation ponds to supplement their diet of rice. The area is situated high in the mountains, where snow falls of up to six metres made access difficult, if not impossible, during the winter months. Such an isolated position forced the inhabitants of Yamakoshi go to rely on the resources they had, and the attention they devoted to breeding carp led to the Niigata region becoming established as the centre of the growing koi 'industry'.

          Colour mutations were first noticed between 1804 and 1830. These mainly involved red koi, white koi and light yellow koi (the latter being improved to become the first single-coloured Kawarimono) and, later, the tortoiseshell-patterned koi all mutations from the black common carp, known as Magoi. Around 1830-50, cross-breeding of red with white carp produced what could be described as the first Kohaku. Early koi varieties, such as Asagi, Higoi and Bekko, were cross-bred until, in the 1880s, many of the varieties we know today were fixed. Certain varieties consistently reached high standards of quality over a period of several generations and, in this way, lineages became established.

          Asagi and Ki Utsuri were first produced in 1875. These varieties were highly prized and began to exchange hands for very large sums of money. This led to a temporary ban on the industry, as the local authorities thought that such carp breeding bordered on speculation. Fortunately, as the local villagers had no other means of livelihood or pastime, the ban did not last long.

          Meanwhile, in Central Europe, a mutation arose in the late 18th century that was to exert a striking influence on koi "design". The mutation affected the scales, resulting either in scaleless, so-called 'leather' carp or 'mirror' carp with large shiny scales along the dorsal line. These fish, which became known as 'doitsu' from their German/Austrian origins, were originally bred for the table, being easier to clean than fully scaled fish. Some doitsu carp were introduced to Japan in 1904 and from these individuals the first Shusui (which are doitsu Asagi) were produced in 1910.

          Breeding fancy koi was restricted to the Niigata region until the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, it was not until 1914 that koi were introduced outside this area, when Hikosaburo Hirasawa, the Mayor of Higashiyama Mura (now Yamakoshi Mura), sent 27 koi to the great Tokyo Exhibition to promote the economic circumstances of the poverty-stricken people of the Niigata region. These koi were awarded a second prize at the exhibition and eight of them were presented to the Emperor Taisho's son. This marked the beginning of the flourishing koi industry as we know it today.

          Unfortunately, after several good years, during which the Kohaku and Sanke varieties were stabilized, an economic depression in 1920 caused the koi industry to fall to a low ebb. During the period up to the Second World War several more varieties, including Shiro Bekko and Showa, were successfully established, despite another depression in the industry, this time caused by food shortages. Koi breeding continued to thrive in Niigata, and the industry grew as the area became more accessible, with the building of the Shinetsu Railway and the National Highway Route 17.

          To a certain extent, the boom in the breeding of koi that took place at the end of the Second World War was made possible by the commercial development of air travel. Transportation of koi all over the world was then possible and a huge international market developed. For example, koi were first shipped to San Francisco in 1938, to Hawaii in 1947, to Canada in 1949 and to Brazil in 1953.

          Koi-keeping outside Japan has increased dramatically, particularly during the 1980's, and many koi are now being produced in other countries for their own home markets. Although at present Japanese varieties outshine those produced in other parts of the world in terms of range and quality, it is conceivable that new varieties will eventually appear for the first time outside Japan.

Written by Mark Davis and reproduced from The Interpet Encyclopedia of Koi, by kind permission of Interpet Limited, Vincent Lang, Dorset, Surrey RH4 3YX

Price - Depends on size, body shape, colour & pattern, over 500, 000 is paid for prize specimens in Japan.

Size - 18" can be achieved in as little as 4 years, depending on pond sizes, food and water conditions, The maximum size is about 3ft.




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