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Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009
The colorful lure of carp
In the freshwater world of ornamental fish, legions of fans are hooked on its nishikigoi stars
By EDAN CORKILL
Two milestones were achieved at this year's All-Japan Show for Nishikigoi, or ornamental carp, which was held last month in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture.
The first was as spectacular as it was bizarre: The fish that was named Grand Champion was a giant, literally. While most nishikigoi are around 60 cm in length, Ryujin measured an astonishing 107 cm. She was the biggest champion ever and quite possibly the largest fish of her variety that has ever graced the waters of this planet.
Yet, while it was Ryujin that attracted the fanfare at the meet, a second milestone was also achieved — one that is likely to prove far more significant in the history of nishikigoi-keeping, which has seen declining levels of participation in Japan. For the first time in the All-Japan Show's 45-year history, one of the event's 40 judges was a foreigner.
Technically, the so-called All-Japan Show for Nishikigoi should be prefaced with the letters ZNA, which stand for Zen-Nippon Airinkai. Don't even think of asking what that is in English. The first rule of nishikigoi is that the lingua franca is Japanese. Just like judo matches at the Olympics are refereed by a "shinpan", at nishikigoi shows — be they in Sao Paolo, Sydney, London, New York, or Bandung, Indonesia — the terminology is Japanese. Everyone knows that ZNA refers to the Japanese national association of nishikigoi hobbyists, and everyone knows that their annual show is the most important in the world.
Actually, that's not quite true. There is another show that rivals ZNA's for importance — the national championships of the Zen-Nihon Nishikigoi Shinkokai (All-Japan Nishikigoi Promotion Association). The difference is that this association is for professional breeders and dealers, while ZNA is for amateurs.
Keiichi Iwahashi is the vice chairman of ZNA. He also served as the head judge at the recent national show and, incidentally, is a former vice president of construction company giant Kajima Corporation. He took a few minutes out of his judging duties to talk with The Japan Times.
"Our association, which started 45 years ago, is under the auspices of the Agency for Cultural Affairs," he explained. "Our job is to celebrate and spread the wonderful Japanese cultural asset that is nishikigoi."
To this end, ZNA holds local, regional and national shows for nishikigoi in Japan, and also accredits and authorizes ZNA "chapters" overseas and sends Japanese judges to adjudicate at their shows. As there are currently ZNA chapters in 16 countries, most of the association's 40 or so top-level judges travel overseas at least three times a year to lend expert Japanese eyes to the assessment of local fish.
ZNA's activities also include the donation of nishikigoi to public parks and gardens — both in Japan and abroad.
"Back in the 1970s when Queen Elizabeth II visited Japan, she was so taken by nishikigoi that we gave some as a present to Buckingham Palace," Iwahashi said. "They're still there now."
Iwahashi didn't say whether the Queen signed up to join the ZNA, but he did note that of its 10,000 or so members, 40 percent are now non-Japanese. R yujin, the 107-cm grand champion from this year's ZNA show, has splotches of red and black spread evenly over her long, white, torpedo-like body.
With the All-Japan Show's judging completed during the first morning of the two-day event, Ryujin spent most of her time in the center of the venue, Izumo Dome, in a blue tarpaulin pool about 2 meters across. Gracefully turning this way and that, she resembled a model on a catwalk, happily obliging the constant ring of visitors forever trying to frame her for photographs.
"Nishikigoi look best from the front," one old-timer advised a young visitor. "You shouldn't photograph them from behind."
Ryujin's color pattern identifies her as a Taisho Sanshoku, a variety that in English you might describe as a "Taisho Era Tricolor" — if, that is, you were allowed to Anglicize the terminology, which you aren't.
As the name suggests, the variety was first established through selective breeding during the Taisho Era (1912-26). It is distinct from the two other popular multicolored varieties, Showa Sanshoku, which has white and red splotches on a black base, and Kohaku, which has only red splotches on a white base.
While the Showa Sanshoku is one of the newest varieties, having been established in the Showa Era (1926-89), Kohaku (which literally means "red and white" in Japanese) is one of the oldest varieties in existence and is thought to date from the middle part of the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
For all their colorful flair, nishikigoi belong to the species common carp (Cyprinus carpio), a dun-colored native of Asia and Eastern Europe that is now found on every continent (except Antarctica) and in at least 59 countries worldwide; in some they are regarded as a food source as well as sport fish. It is believed the species was brought to Japan, where it was named koi, thousands of years ago.
Nishikigoi lore has it that in the 1820s some farmers in the village of Ojiya in present-day Niigata Prefecture began to zero in on the few individual specimens that exhibited slight natural color mutations, then selectively bred from them until white, red, gold, and then eventually multicolored variations appeared.
While common goldfish (Carassius auratus) — a member of the same freshwater Cyprinidae family as common carp — had been bred for color in China since the second century, it is generally accepted that those Ojiya farmers were the first to deliberately manipulate carp for their color.
One of the first varieties to become stabilized was the Asagi, with blue-tinged scales on their backs and red-tinged scales on their bellies. Kohaku followed, with red blotches on a white base.
However, Niigata's gradually diversifying spectrum of fish went largely unnoticed until the 1914 Tokyo Exposition, where they caused a sensation and their popularity exploded domestically.
Increased selective breeding after that led to the establishment of more varieties: In addition to the Taisho and Showa Sanshoku, there were Utsurimono (black with splotches of red, white or gold); Ogon (completely gold); and Benigoi (completely red).
Competitive shows for nishikigoi began around the time of the Tokyo Exposition, and with them emerged the complex criteria by which the ornamental fish are judged.
ZNA Vice Chairman Iwahashi explained those criteria in reference to this year's Grand Champion, Ryujin.
"The most basic criterion is the body shape," he said. "The body of a nishikigoi should be symmetrical and evenly tapered. You can't have its tummy sticking out or anything like that."
The next criterion, he continued, is the color. "Ryujin is a Taisho, so the base color is supposed to be white. It must be a completely clean white, without blemishes.
"Next, you look at the splotches of red. It is best if the red is in several patches spread over the length of the body."
Meanwhile, the splotches of black, he said, should appear on top of the white areas, or on the edges between the red and the white.
Each of the colors should be vivid. "They need to be rich and even," Iwahashi stressed.
Other owners gathered at the ZNA show explained that the fish are also judged for the luster of their skin and for the way they swim. They have to be able to strut their stuff — "like a dog at a dog show," as one owner put it.