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Koi and Japanese Culture

Have carp been raised in Japan since the time before Christ? Judging from the fact that some carp bones have been unearthed from shell heaps of the Yayoi period, it is considered that carp have inhabited in the rivers and swamps of Japan for at least 2000. Ancient people might have started catching carp for food and began keeping them for provisions.

Japanese people have also enjoyed carp as ornamental fish. The oldest record regarding carp keeping can be seen in the "Nihonshoki” (Chronicle of Japan). The Emperor Keiko fell in love with Otohime princess and tried to make her visit his place. He would happily view carp in the pond at the Kukurinomiya Palace. The princess finally visited the pond to see the carp and the Emperor fulfilled his long-cherished dream with the aid of his carp. The story was written in 734. In Heian period (794~1185), viewing carp in garden ponds was common among the aristocracy. Later around the end of Edo period (early 19th century), there were Higoi (red carp), Shirogoi (white carp) and Shirogoi with some red markings on the various parts of the body seen in Japan. They are all ancestors of today’s Kohaku. It was the farmers of Echigo (current Niigata Prefecture) who transformed mutant carp into beautiful Nishikigoi. By the way, there is a record of red, white and yellow carp in China. However, regarding Nishikigoi as "Living jewelry”, it can be said that Japanese people have improved upon it. Nishikigoi are worthy of being called the national ornamental fish of Japan (Kokugyo). Today it is considered to be one of the leading figures of ornamental fish in the world.

The Chinese character for carp "Koi" was, of course, introduced from China. It is made up of three separate parts, called radicals. The left one means fish, the upper part of the right means rice field and the bottom means earth. The right parts together mean the marked off land which further means the condition of beautiful organization. A fish representative that has a beautiful law of scales is the Nishikigoi, while the animal counterpart with a fine coat of hair is determined a raccoon dog, according to Chinese characters.

Koi is said to be a fish that succeeds in life. This came after a historical event in China where carp were the only fish that could swim up a waterfall, called Ryumon (dragon gate) at the upper reaches of the Yellow River, and became dragons. The saying, "koi-no-taki-nobori", a carp swimming up the rapids, also came later.

Koi are also worthy of being called "bushi-gyo" (Japanese warrior fish) because of their serene and sometimes tremendous manner of swimming. They even have a habit of jumping up in the air. The figure of high splashing water after they jump and land looks very powerful. While placed on a chopping board, koi never make a scene. Even when a chopping knife is placed in the body it stays without moving a muscle. The manner reminds Japanese people of a samurai with an air of composure.

Japanese people consider setting up one’s own house a grave affair. After building a house, many make a pond in the garden. Keeping koi in the garden makes the master of the house feel fulfilled. In this way, the refreshing atmosphere of koi meets the temperament of Japanese people. However, today not only the Japanese but also many people outside Japan are attracted by koi.

Koi are often compared to a natural big tree, while tropical fish can be compared to flowers in a flower garden and goldfish to a dwarf tree. The air of Nishikigoi is suitable to the king of ornamental fish. There are many words that describe Nishikigoi, such as heroic, tremendous, sturdy, magnificent, vigorous and so on. Their composed figure is a suitable object for painting and sculpture.

Koi and Japanese Culture