Mon, Jan 08, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Million-yen koi win pageants, help owners destress

AFP, KAZO, Japan

Breeders Mikinori Kurihara, left, and Yasuyuki Tanaka transport a customer’s nishikigoi to a water tank on their truck in Kuki, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, on Nov. 30 last year.

Photo: AFP

Hand-reared for their color and beauty, koi have become an iconic symbol of Japan that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even participate in fishy beauty contests.

The nation’s koi were brought to the world’s attention when visiting US President Donald Trump was snapped unceremoniously dumping the last of a box of feed into a palace pond in Tokyo. However, the fish have for decades been popular in Japan, where top breeders take their most prized specimens — known as nishikigoi — to highly competitive “beauty parades.”

At one such competition in Tokyo, judges in sharp suits, notebooks in hand, strode around tanks lined up along a pedestrian street where the valuable koi strut their stuff.

They come in all the colors of the rainbow: pearly white, bright red, cloudy gray, dark blue and gleaming golden yellow, but it is the curvature of the fish that accounts for 60 percent of the final score, said competition organizer Isamu Hattori, who runs Japan’s main association for breeders of koi, adding that color and contrast make up another 30 percent.

And the final 10 percent?

Hinkaku — a concept that is tricky to define and even harder to judge, best translated as the “presence” or “aura” of the fish.

“Hinkaku. It’s either there in the genes at birth, or it’s not,” mused Mikinori Kurikara, a koi breeder in Saitama, north of Tokyo, who said he can spot it in fish when they reach eight or nine months old.

“Put it this way, it’s like looking after your own children every day. You care for your kids and want them to grow healthy. In the same way, you take care of these fish, appreciate them and adore them,” he said.

At his farm, thousands of tiny nishikigoi, or colored carp, dart around deep basins of carefully purified water, meticulously divided by age and color.

A less glorious fate awaits the other koi that have not been fortunate enough to catch the eye of the breeder: They are sold off as feed for tropical fish.

“It’s a really delicate job, really difficult. Everything matters: the ground, the water quality, the food,” said the 48-year-old, who took over the farm from his father and is training his son, half his age, in the subtle arts of koi breeding.

“We have many secrets,” he added mischievously. “But even if we let them slip, it wouldn’t work. You have to be able to feel it.”

These days, any self-respecting traditional Japanese garden has plenty of colorful koi gracing its ponds, but it is a relatively recent tradition.

About 200 years ago, villagers in the mountainous region around Niigata in northwest Japan started to practice genetic engineering without knowing what they were doing. For the first time, they began to cross-breed rare colorful carp, not for food but for pure esthetic value.

The craze for nishikigoi gradually took over the whole of Japan and then spread into other parts of Asia.

They are especially popular in China, where carp swimming against the tide symbolize the idea of perseverance leading to riches — rather like people climbing the social ladder, Tokyo University Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia professor Yutaka Suga said.

Today, koi is big business and Japanese exports are booming: 90 percent of domestic production is exported and sold at auction.

In 2016, Japan exported a record 295 tonnes of koi, generating turnover of ¥3.5 billion (US$30.9 million), an increase of almost 50 percent from 2007, according to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

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