50th Anniversary All Japan Nishikigoi Show
The History of Nishikigoi

The background and birth of Nishikigoi / The History of the All Japan Nishikigoi Show / 50th Anniversary Show Special Exhibits


The background and birth of Nishikigoi

Literature on Nishikigoi cultivation in Japan is rare, the oldest being the Nihon Shoki (720 CE), wherein Emperor Keiko in the fourth year of his reign (94 CE) admires carp swimming in the Kukuriya-no-miya Pond in Mino-no-kuni (the southern part of modern Gifu prefecture). The only other mention is of Empress Suiko (620 CE) viewing carp swimming in Soga-no-Umako’s garden on the banks of the Yamato Asuka River.

There is a blank in the literature until the Edo period, when the Honzowamyo (a dictionary of plants and herbs; 1796) lists red, blue, black and white carp. These correspond to Higoi; Asagi; Magoi; and Iromujigoi. These appeared as spontaneous mutations of black carp, and were the key to the future birth of Nishikigoi.

1. Geographic conditions

In the age when land routes were not yet well established, riverboats played a major role in transporting large volumes of goods. Riverboats on the Uono River in southern Niigata prefecture carried commodities needed for everyday life. It’s conceivable that, along with the exchange of other local products, the fish caught in this region were delivered over a wide area using this waterway. Fishing and agricultural equipment from olden times are conserved in historical archives in river basin municipalities, opening a window onto the era when riverboats plied the Uono river.

  During the winter, riverboats couldn’t be used. Thus the story goes that in November before the first snowfall the river was always congested with boats transporting supplies for the winter and catching salmon, the seasonal fish. The fish caught under these conditions were sold as live fish, and also were processed to be sold in other regions.

Yamakoshigo, the birthplace of Nishikigoi, is in a mountainous area bordering Koshigun and Kitauonumagun, where the snowfall is deep. In abundant years, more than five meters of snow may fall, and it’s not uncommon for more than a meter to fall overnight. They say that in olden times, when the snow fell non-stop in January, communication with neighboring villages was often cut off, turning it into an island on land.

The common carp was a valuable source of protein for people living under such climate conditions. In the summer, they raised them in agricultural reservoirs and cultivated the hatched fry using paddy field fish farming to sustain the eggs and fry. This method of terraced rice-field aquaculture had been passed down from ancient times. As part of the rice production adjustment policy, some paddy fields were no longer used for rice cultivation, but as fishponds, since around 1970. It’s likely that paddy field carp breeding will continue until Nishikigoi turn into rice!

The Uono river, rich in many species of fish, rises in Mount Tanigawa, on the border with Gunma prefecture. The water quality is extremely clear and soft, and it’s well-known as a very clear watercourse, but the carp caught in the river were cultivated in ponds dotted throughout the river basin. Then when they grew to a reasonable size they were sold for use as food before the snowfall. All carp sold for food are Magoi (black carp), of which there are three varieties. In this region the Asagi are most common, followed by Tetsu, but almost no Doro Magoi are to be found. The relationship to Magoi varies depending on the type of Nishikigoi, but the earliest evolution was from Asagi Magoi, when light blue carp appeared toward the end of the Edo period due to a spontaneous mutation. This was the original strain of the Nishikigoi called Asagi. The key to the later appearance of Kohaku is found in the transition between the Tetsu Magoi that traveled via Junihirakawa (a tributary of the Uono river) and was carried overland to Yamakoshigo, and Higoi, the red carp.

The etymology of the name Uono is said to derive from the word in the Ainu language for five hundred swamps. This changed to Ionuma in the time of Nitta Yoshisada, a military commander of the Warring States period. Then after the han system was abolished in favor of prefectures in the Meiji period, this region was organized in the gun, or district system, as Kitauonuma, Minamiuonuma and Nakauonuma. The proof that this area once held many swamps lies in the names containing the world “island” (shima) that still remain, such as Wanagashima, Aoshima, Shimojima and others. The likelihood is that over the course of time, farmland was created when earth and sand built up around them, allowing people to settle and form villages.

Most of the geological strata around the Uono river are formed of gravel, and the arable land in Yamakoshigo is mostly granular. These geological features and water quality may have caused the Asagi brought in from Uonuma to change color tone to survive. It is thought that the retention of this element of incomplete protective coloration was utilized as the key to creating Nishikigoi.

2.The History of Nishikigoi

The Asagi brought from the Uonuma region to Yamakoshigo was a totally rare species for that area, and supposedly was much sought after by economically powerful farmers. But because of the slippery, soft qualities of the water, in most cases the color tone changed to almost white with a slight tinge of blue remaining on the back, due to white retrogression. So these became completely different Asagi from those remaining in the Uonuma region. These Asagi were cultivated together with edible carp, and in fact here lay hidden the coincidence that would give birth to Nishikigoi. Tetsu Magoi had been raised in agricultural reservoirs in Yamakoshigo from ancient times, and Higoi (red carp) was born as a spontaneous mutation due to inbreeding. These were prized as offerings on auspicious occasions. Then at the end of the Edo period, around the time of the Bunsei era (1818-1829), the Kanoko appeared from a cross between the white Mizuasagi and red Higoi, having red scales on white skin. From these came Sarasa with red markings on its back, ancestor of the Kohaku varieties, in the Meiji period. The Tenpō period (1830-1843) saw the appearance of Zukinkaburi, with its half red head, and Kuchibeni, red only around the mouth.

In 1874-1875, a Kohaku variety with a magnificent light crimson pattern appeared and spread throughout the region. In the middle of the Meiji period (1899), Kohaku was established by Hiroi Kunizo of Utogi (now Ojiya City) in Koshigun Higashiyama-mura. That lineage was improved and distributed throughout the region until the present-day Kohaku was perfected. In 1917, Taisho Sanke was born as a cross between Kohaku and red and black Bekko. Many other varieties were created as a result of Kohaku inbreeding, such as the Ai Goromo, which has red scales edged with indigo blue, and Kuro Goromo, which has black edging.

The appearance of the Doitsu-goi was the event that gave the most impetus to selective breeding of Nishikigoi. In 1904 Dr. Bruno Hofer, professor at the Munich veterinary university, presented the head of Japan’s Fisheries Training Department, Matsubara Shinnosuke, with 40 fry from the Earl of Eisch village in south Bavaria. They were successful mainly in Nagano prefecture in breeding programs for edible carp, but Akiyama Yoshigorō of Fukagawa in Tokyo crossbred two of them with Asagi. This created in 1905 a new breed of Doitsu Asagi, the Shusui. By crossbreeding Shusui and Kohaku and Taisho Sanke for several generations, the Kagamigoi Kohaku (Doitsu Kohaku) and Kagamigoi Taisho (Doitsu Sanke) were created.

The genes for the unique mirror scales (half-moon shape) of the Doitsu are strong, and are transmitted reliably to all varieties. The three varieties, Kagamigoi and the scaleless Kawagoi, and the Yoroigoi, with its armor-like scales, all are in contrast to the shape of Wagoi. They have retained their predominance for body height and width in initial cultivation, and introducing their characteristics such as excellent feeding efficiency to Nishikigoi has improved the breed. To showcase the results of these improvements, the All Japan Nishikigoi Promotion Association set up an independent exhibit section in the Nishikigoi Show to inspire an awareness of breeding. It is indeed impossible to imagine the creation of new varieties without the contribution of the Doitsu varieties.   

When speaking of post-war Nishikigoi history, we cannot set aside the creation of Ogon and the establishment of Kinginrin. The Ogon, with its pectoral fin glittering with gold like a dancer’s fan, was created by Aoki Sawata in 1947 in Takezawa village, Koshigo in Niigata prefecture (now Nagaoka City). The appearance of this carp, its whole body the color of a gold coin, shocked the breeders in Yamakoshigo. Then for the next 50 years improvements progressed at a swift pace, so that now there are as many as 26 established varieties from the bloodline of this Ogon. This achievement, the creation of a new pure breed, will surely go down in the history of Nishikigoi. Another record that must be carved into history is the establishment of Kinginrin, a transformation into an even more splendid and elegant Nishikigoi. In the late 1960s, Mr. Uedera of Hiroshima prefecture established this new variety, which has glittering scales of gold and silver from its head to the base of its tail, unlike the conventional Ginrin. Many breeders incorporated the Ginrin into their breed improvements, and the pace of improvements toward even higher quality accelerated, as they crossed Ginrin with the main Nishikigoi breeds of Kohaku, Taisho Sanke and Showa Sanke, then with the Ogon Hikarimuji. The history of Nishikigoi can be defined by selective breeding and creation of new varieties, and can be traced from the breed’s establishment, through the Doitsu-goi’s introduction and the creation of Ogon, to Kinginrin’s establishment.

In biological terms, a breed means that all fry born in the same brood have the same traits, like the Hikarimuji variety. However, it’s important to keep in mind the fact that in the case of Nishikigoi, breed categories are terms for the genetically expressed traits, and are not names that depend on the degree of establishment.    

Currently there are 82 varieties of Nishikigoi, and breeders are working night and day in their quest for classic elegance and an expression of vivid beauty. The All Japan Nishikigoi Promotion Association currently has members from 16 countries and more than 70 specialists. Nishikigoi are exported as Japan’s national fish to 40 countries, and we hope they go as messengers of peace to the whole world, linking the hearts of those who see them, and bringing about joyful reunions.


The background and birth of Nishikigoi / The History of the All Japan Nishikigoi Show / 50th Anniversary Show Special Exhibits


The History of the All Japan Nishikigoi Show

January 14, 1970: Creation of the All Japan Nishikigoi Promotion Association

Competitive shows for Nishikigoi formerly were held separately by breeders, distributors and enthusiasts in their various regions, but a nation-wide competitive show was needed as soon as possible, to promote Nishikigoi even further.

At that point, the Niigata Niigata Nishikigoi Council, located in the chief breeding center, stepped forward and in cooperation with the All Japan Nishikigoi Club and Niigata Prefecture, held the 1st All Japan Nishikigoi Show in December 1968.  

This competition triggered strong demand from Nishikigoi breeders and distributors all around Japan for formation of a nation-wide organization. In response, the organization was founded on the occasion of the 2nd All Japan Nishikigoi Show, for which this year marks the 50th anniversary.

Competitive Shows (for reference)

Nishikigoi competitive shows are settings where breeders announce the results of their creative efforts. The earliest one was held in 1912, in an elementary school in Kizawa, Higashiyama village, Koshigo in Niigata prefecture (now Kawaguchi-machi, Kitauonumagun). This is said to have been the first competitive show for Nishikigoi. At the Tokyo Taisho Exhibition, held in Ueno in 1914, Nishikigoi from every village in Yamakoshigo were exhibited and thus introduced to the country at large. As a result of this exhibition, each village established a cultivation guild, and Higashimurayama, Takezawa, and Ohta villages took turns to hold annual shows. In addition, it is said that after the harvest, the hamlets of each village held their own small-scale shows. 

It seems that from this time on, Nishikigoi became widely popular in Niigata prefecture, because anyone could exhibit at shows, regardless of where they lived. Although Nishikigoi shows weren’t held during World War II, with post-war reconstruction they began to be held in various locations. Niigata prefecture’s first show was held in 1962, but that of Nagaoka City, which recorded its 53rd show in 2006, is the longest-running. In second place for consecutive Nishikigoi shows is Yamakoshimura (now Nagaoka City), Kawaguchi-cho’s Niigata Show with 45, followed by Hiroshima prefecture at 42. The prefectural level shows are mainly attended by breeders. They show off the results of their creations, and share information on breeding and cultivation techniques, which they then apply to selective breeding to improve the quality of Nishikigoi. Other shows in which enthusiasts can also exhibit include the All Japan Nishikigoi Show; the Zen Nippon Airinkai Competition, organized by enthusiasts (and with many exhibits from overseas members); and the All Japan Koi Society’s show. Japan’s national fish is thus introduced to the world as pure Japanese culture, as not only the word Nishikigoi, but all the terminology is in the Japanese language, as well. Highly acclaimed Nishikigoi shows are even being held overseas, including fish bred from koi exported from Japan.


The background and birth of Nishikigoi / The History of the All Japan Nishikigoi Show / 50th Anniversary Show Special Exhibits


50th Anniversary Show Special Exhibits