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What Do Koi Fish Represent in Japanese Culture?

Four koi fish swimming in a pond.

You’ve probably seen them swimming around outside a Japanese restaurant, but have you ever stopped to wonder what do koi fish represent in Japanese culture? The unique fish aren’t just popular for their eye-catching features – in Japan, koi fish are an important symbol for courage and resilience, and their historical ties to the country date back centuries. There’s a lot to learn about what makes these aquatic beauties so significant, so to learn more about why koi fish are so special in Japan, keep reading on!

What is a Koi Fish?

In case you need a reminder, koi fish, or nishikigoi, are a freshwater ornamental variety of the Amur carp that are known for their colorful feature combinations and for having two barbs at the bottom of its mouth. It’s unknown when the breeding of koi began, but it’s believed that the colorful carp we know as modern Japanese koi were caught by rice farmers in the early 19-century, and instead of being used as a food source, the farmers kept and bred the fish to create a multitude of exciting color combinations.

A close up of a koi fish.

With breeding came several variations of koi that each have their own qualities. In the early days of koi breeding, for example, the fish were bred with a scaleless version of a carp from Germany and spawned a mutation of koi without scales that gives them an added hint of shimmer. Another kind of koi are the butterfly or long-fin koi, which have elongated fins, and most koi have some sort of coloration or pattern that falls into one of the following categories: Kohaku, Sanke, Showa, Gosanke, Bekko, and Kawarimono.

Koi can get pretty big – up to 3 feet! – which is why you’ve probably ever seen them in a pond outside instead of in a fish bowl. Koi are non-aggressive fish, which means they’re free to live in the same pond as other freshwater species. 

The Meaning of Nishikigoi

Nishikigoi, the Japanese term for koi, is derived from the Japanese word nishiki, which means “brocade.” If you didn’t know, brocade is a specific kind of rich fabric that typically is made with a silver or gold thread to give it a shine, much like the shiny sheen of a koi. Fittingly, nishikigoi literally translates to “brocaded carp.”

It’s unclear when koi made the transition from aquatic phenomenon to an important symbol in Japanese culture, but it’s been believed for nearly two hundred years that the species shares the same bravery as the Samurai, due to its ability to overcome obstacles, swim upstream, and conquer waterfalls. Because of this, nishikigoi have represented courage, strength, resilience, and perseverance in Japan for decades.

Types of Koi Fish

A group of koi fish swimming.

As mentioned, there are many different kinds of koi based on their color combinations and patterns. Those variations are:

  • Kohaku: White body with red pigmentation that conforms to the edges of the scales.
  • Sanke: Kohaku pigmentation (white and red) with black Black spots should not be on the head, but stripes on the fins are accepted.
  • Showa: Sanke pigmentation (white, red, and black) but with more black spots than Black spots on head and fin bases are acceptable.
  • Gosanke: Combination of Kohaku, Sanke, and Showa colorations; the most popular kind of koi.
  • Bekko: Black marks contrasted by one of many different body colors; Shiro Bekko have white bodies, Ki Bekko have yellow bodies, and Aka Bekko have red bodies.
  • Kawarimono: Koi with solid coloring; Shiro Muji have all white bodies, Chagoi have brown bodies, and Kigoi have all yellow Goshiki also fall into this category, even though they consist of five colors (white, red, black, blue, and dark blue).

Cost of Koi Fish

If you want to get a koi fish for a good price, you’re probably not going to want to get picky. Koi pet store prices can range between $10 - $20, while online retailers can charge upwards of $700 for the fish.

If you’re only in the market for the best of the best, be prepared to spend a pretty penny. Many breeders are known to charge thousands of dollars for their koi, with some prices exceeding $15,000 depending on the type and the size of the fish. 

Tips to Take Care of Koi Fish

The biggest thing to remember about koi is that they can get pretty big, which means you’ll need to supply them with the proper amount of space to grow. Koi caretakers recommend supplying your pond with 1,000 gallons of water per koi, and if you plan on keeping your fish outside all year long, you’ll need a pretty deep pond as well.

Koi go into hibernation during the winter months, and spend their time treading the bottom of their tank where the warmest water is located. If the pond isn’t deep enough, the koi will not survive through the winter. That being said, you’ll want to make sure your pond has a mix of shallow and deep areas to keep the bottom from freezing. Koi thrive best in areas where they can be exposed to moderate temperatures (anywhere between 59-77 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal), but can survive in areas that range from 34-90 degrees Fahrenheit.

You’ll want to avoid placing your pond in a spot where the water will receive too much sun, because the added heat can be stressful on the koi. A partially shaded location is best, and don’t forget to properly secure the area from predators so that they don’t prey upon your fish. 

Koi should be fed up to three times a day, though in cooler water (around 65 degrees Fahrenheit), koi should only be fed once a day. Koi will stop eating altogether once temperatures hit around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and go into hibernation until the water becomes warmer.

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