Every May 5th on Children’s Day, I remember seeing beautiful koi fish (Japanese carp) streamers dancing in the wind above my neighbor’s house. In this Japanese tradition, called koi nobori, koi fish streamers of different colors and sizes are decorated outside of the house in a specific order to represent each member of the family. Although koi are the national fish of Japan, they are not a native species —they were brought to Japan from China in the 1st Century A.D. as a source of food. In fact, the earliest record of koi farming traces back to China in the 5th Century B.C. Koi has since spread its fins beyond Japan and is now loved by people around the world. Hobbyists gather at annual koi competitions to showcase their most prized specimens. The price of such precious koi? Up to hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even over a million dollars. Both in terms of monetary value and cultural significance, these seemingly easy-going fish are not to be taken lightly. But why koi? Were they always this valuable? And how did the relationship between koi and the Japanese people develop?
History of koi
As we mentioned briefly in the introduction, it is said that koi fish were first introduced to Japan, more specifically Yamakoshi Village in Niigata Prefecture, as a source of food. The koi did not have any specific patterns of colors, and for the most part were brownish in color. Niigata has historically been an important prefecture for rice cultivation, and, located along the Japan Sea, is also known for its seafood, hot springs, and ski-ways. How are koi fish and rice farming related? With many rice paddies came the opportunity to raise koi fish for a little extra protein in preparation for the winter. Farmers would place the koi in rice paddies where there was an ample supply of water. While the koi fish fertilize the rice plants with their droppings, the rice plants help clean the water by filtering out and absorbing nutrients within the droppings. The cycle continued until winter when farmers harvested the koi to add extra protein to their diet and help their families get through cold winters. This is similar to the concept behind modern-day aquaponics. In fact, koi are frequently raised in aquaponics systems we see today.
It is said that one day, a farmer noticed an orange spot on the back of one of his koi, and he decided to breed koi for their colors. These selectively bred decorative koi became known as nishikigoi. Farmers continued to breed and trade new variations of koi, and what was once viewed as a hobby for farmers within the small village quickly spread throughout Japan. More and more people wanted to cultivate these beautiful fish not as a source of food, but as a prized possession, perhaps even a pet.
The chart below summarizes how koi fish were bred to obtain the variations we see today.
What do koi symbolize?
In Japan, koi symbolizes many good qualities. Known to swim against the current and overcome great obstacles (as mentioned in an old saying described below), koi symbolize strength, courage, patience, and success through perseverance. As koi can grow very large and live a long life, they have become a symbol of prosperity and good luck. Their slow, graceful movements also symbolize peace and tranquility. If there is a pond in a Japanese garden, chances are, you will also find koi. Japanese gardens are often found close to or within temples and palaces, also very auspicious places. Koi may very well have been kept close to these places as a good luck charm or to ensure the success of those who visit.
japanese Proverbs & koi
Koi fish are also mentioned in numerous sayings—two such common ones are described below.
Koi no takinobori（鯉の滝登り) a koi’s swim up a waterfall: Refers to overcoming obstacles that seem almost impossible.
Oyobanu koi no takinobori（及ばぬ鯉の滝登り）a koi unable to swim up the waterfall: The direct translation refers to a situation in which no amount of effort, passion, or dedication can help you obtain something (the task is impossible). However, this saying is often used playing on the word “koi,” which also means love in Japanese. Thus, it can refer to unrequited love.
Where can koi be seen today?
Believe it or not, valuable koi can be seen outside of annual competitions. Koi continue to inhabit serene ponds woven into the landscape of some traditional Japanese gardens. Their graceful movements and vibrant colors that trickle through the calm surface of the water complement the garden’s atmosphere. See them for yourself on our Japanese garden tour! Let their subtlety ease your heart and mind as you enter the world of Zen.