Koi Culture, Categories, Coloring, and Conformation



Despite Celebrating Diversity…

But despite celebrating diversity, the single most popular fish in all of water gardening is the colorful, and charismatic Koi. With a genealogy that’s deeply embedded in Japanese culture and history, these carefully cultivated, carp-like conundrums from the land of the rising sun, have captured the imagination of pond owners worldwide. The purpose of this article then is to explain the mystique and the attraction that these crown jewels of water gardening, have created in their admirers.

Genealogical Roots…

Although they are considered water gardening royalty, it’s to note that when you trace their genealogy back, you find that they actually have blue collar roots. That’s right-they are really one very fancy variety of the common carp. They’re bottom feeders who are most at home rooting around, in and among the rubble found on the bottom of their natural environment. As a matter of fact, the purpose of the famous whiskers is to help them root around more efficiently in the rocks/ rubble. One other thing…as a member of the carp family, they are also very hardy, and naturally built to withstand the extremes that Mother Nature throws at them out in the real world. So for example, changes pH levels, climactic and temperature extremes, or lack of artificially produced (manufacture by humans) food are challenges that aren’t as challenging to them as some people would have you believe.

Geographical roots…

As the world shrinks at the hands of economic globalization, East grows closer to West, Oriental bleeds off onto Occidental, the traditions of one culture develop roots in the other culture. And the phenomena is one of the best and most colorful examples of this late 20th, early 21st century transition. As anyone can tell from their names and labels, home base, indeed the Mecca of Koi… has always been Japan. A geographically miniscule, yet heavily populated island culture, Japan is steeped in a long history of precision, bordering on perfectionism. And according to numerous historical accounts breeding in Japan dates back to the 17th century in the village of Yamakoshi, located in rice-growing region of Niigata Prefecture, where they originally bred as a protein to supplement the indigenous rice and vegetables of the area.

Historical Roots: Complimenting A Side Order of Rice…

You heard it right. They were bred for the frying pan- a tasty compliment to a side order of rice. But that was a long time ago and today they are seen in a little different light. In another www account, Joel Burkland explains that “Nishikigoi” or they are recognized as the National fish of Japan. Hundreds of years ago, in the mountains Niigata, the farmers in the village of Yamakoshi noticed a red carp swimming among the black carp that they raised to supplement their diet of rice and vegetables. Through years of selective breeding, Japanese breeders have created the hundreds of unique varieties that we see on the market today.” (1)

Koi of The Rising Sun …

In keeping with their Japanese heritage, the Tancho, which sports a large red circle on the top of its head, has been interpreted as being a symbol of the rising sun, the Japanese Flag, and has become a very coveted fish, in and out of Japan.

However, Most Water Gardeners…

However, most water gardeners who make up our Aquascapes’ clientele aren’t into “showing” them. Most of them are nature-loving naturalists who aren’t out there bidding thousands of dollars per fish so a blue heron can swoop down into an expensive meal. On the other hand we have lots of customers who are curious about them, about their links to Oriental cultures, and how values are determined. So, for all you curious nature-loving enthusiasts out there in water gardening land, here are a few insights that may make watching them more interesting and more fun.


Three General (Americanized) Categories

The three most general and lease sophisticated categories, commonly employed here in the United States include… .

  1. Pond quality (most common and least expensive)
  2. Ornamental quality (2nd most common and more expensive) and…
  3. Show quality (for competitive fanatics, who are willing to pay $

Pond Quality are purchased from local pet shops and breeders. Pond Koi are usually locally bred, have mixed blood lines, have papers that distinguish them, and are not suitable for competition. They are, however, very inexpensive and can be every bit as enjoyable as ornamental or show quality one’s.

Ornamental Quality are a higher quality fish. Most of these “will have been bred from good quality parents, have good blood lines, good conformation , and a beautiful color.” (2) The differences between ornamental and show Koi are found in the pattern, the body conformation, the skin quality, and the evenness of color. In other words, most ornamental one’s have unbalanced patterns with flaws in their skin, coloring, and shape.

Show Quality are expected to have good blood lines, good body conformation, shiny and unflawed skin, sharp edges and balance in their patterns. Experts consider blood line to be such an important factor that they almost take for granted that show quality Koi have come from show quality parents.

Most water garden enthusiasts here in the USA stock their ponds with those that are of the “pond, and/or the ornamental quality”. A very small percentage (less than 1%) own or care about owing (incredibly expensive) show quality.


Five Sophisticated (Japanese) Categories

The Big Three are comprised of Kōhaku, Sanke, and Showa. And despite the last groups name, all three breeds are shown regularly in shows around the world.


The Kōhaku is a uniquely beautiful white with red markings. And like finger prints, no two are ever alike. There are various sub-categories of Kōhaku, which basically refer to various types of red on white pattern. But when you’re talking Koi the Kōhaku inevitably numero uno. One of the primary concerns in valuing, including the Kōhaku is the intensity of their color, and the degree of contrast – in this case red vs. white. The more clear cut and stark the contrast, the more valuable the Kōhaku is deemed to be. In fact, there’s even a Japanese name for the crispness of the patterns edge. It’s called kiwa.”


Back in the early 1900’s, a new variety of them emerged. It added some unique black markings to the red and white of the Kohaku. This new breed was called the Sanke or Sanshoku. This category constitutes the second of the “three families.”


Then in the 1930’s, a third new breed was developed and introduced into the market. It featured red and white markings contrasted against a jet black base. The new breed was known as Showa. And in keeping with tradition, its color intensity, clarity, and crispness of pattern, all play major roles in the evaluation of this new breed as well. Showa represents the third member of the Gonsanke – The Big Three.

Hikarimuji Anyine

The fourth category is the most popular in America. It’s known as Hikarimuji or “light without pattern.” The light part of the name refers to a bright, metallic sheen that characterizes this category. They are also singular in color, which is to say, they’re “without pattern.” Hikarimuji can be jet black (like Zorro, Darth Vader or Batman), green (like the incredible Hulk or the Jolly Green Giant), red, yellow, blue or gold. But they always lack a pattern, and have only one color, which renders them unique.


The final category is known as the Kawarigoi which translated means “changing” or “different”. According to Burkart, “Into this category fall all the varieties both names and unnamed that either have unstable characteristics, or do not fall into any other recognized category.” (3)

As you may well imagine, Kawarigoi contains literally hundreds if different examples and provides an all-inclusive category for anything new that night come along.” (4) Ranging from spectacular to bizarre, in America we might refer to the Kawarigoi as Koi mutts. But actual champions have come from this category as well.


Size, Shape & Color Count when Talking $$$ Value

In the land of Koi size counts. As a matter of fact, the single most important factor in valuing, is his size. Very much like a Sumo Wrestler, the bigger the more valuable. When buying baby Koi, it’s common to look for the ones with the biggest heads, speculating that a big head eventually begets a big body.

Conformation, or body shape plays a significant role as well. The most valuable shape is usually best described as “torpedo-like.” As a matter of fact, if you find one that looks as if it could be shot out of a WWII submarine, grab it quick. It’s a winner.

And finally, skin quality, color intensity and clarity play a very important role in its evaluation as well. When evaluating them, experts will check very closely in order to spot any blemishes or flaws in the skin of the fish. They’ll also consider the intensity, balance and clarity of the color pattern. Of course the more intense, balanced, and clear the colors, the higher the value becomes.

Multi-Lingual Requirements?

The question you may ask after reading al this is “do I need to learn to speak Japanese in order to get along in the land of the Koi?” And the answer is much the same as the person who asks “do I have to learn Latin in order to talk about aquatic plants?” In both cases the answer is no. I mean obviously, it won’t hurt. But you don’t have to be multi-lingual in order to get along in wither case.

Now Let’s Summarize Our Notes

If we were to throw all this into a brief summary here’s what you’d have.

  • Genealogically speaking, they are hardy, bottom feeding, fancy looking carp.
  • Geographically speaking Japan has always been the Mecca of Koi.
  • They were initially raised as a source of protein to compliment that staple, rice.
  • They are the national food fish of Japan.
  • Most water gardeners are not fanatics, but they are curious about them.
  • The three most common categories are pond, Ornamental and show quality.
  • Most water gardeners are happy and satisfied with pond quality Koi.
  • Values depend on size, shape, skin quality, color clarity balance and intensity.
  • The 5 most important Japanese categories include the Kōhaku, Sanke, Showa, Hirarinuji and the Kawarigoi.
If you have questions that haven’t been answered in these Notes, you can:

Stop into our headquarters and see us in person or email your questions to eric@theponddigger.com