‘Oi oi koi’: Japan’s fishy beauty pageants

Japan koi

Koi carp are seen as a symbol for strength and resilience in Japan and can be sold for millions. Source: Sora Sagano/Unsplash

BEAUTY pageants are often associated with glamorous women, showcasing their beauty and brains. Yet Japan doesn’t think these aesthetic shows should be reserved for just the human form, but should extended to the hand reared and much-admired koi fish.

Coming in an array of amber, ivory, black, pearl and golden colors, these fish, with their majestic flair, are revered across Japan and have become an iconic symbol of the nation.

The graceful and vibrant underwater dwellers were first introduced to Japan in 500BC by Chinese invaders and have become a symbol of resilience, strength, and positivity due to their habits of swimming against river currents to gain strength.

For some, koi breeding is serious game, much like that of pedigree cats and dogs, and for good reason. According to Pet Helpful, a certain specimen of koi can sell for up to US$2.2 million.

Koi fish have an international reputation and can be found in English stately home ponds to the wild lakes of North America and beyond. While on a recent trip to Japan, Donald Trump drew international attention to the high-maintenance fish, by dumping a box a feed into a koi pond after being told to feed them gently.

Around 200 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Meiji who oversaw the rapid change of Japan from an isolationist state to a capitalist, world-dominating nation, villagers from the mountainous region of Niigata began to accidentally genetically modify koi to produce what is now Japans most well-respected breed – Nishikigoi.

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Often this breed is entered into “beauty pageants”, while suited and booted judges examine the curvature, color and even aura and personality of the fish, known as Hinkaku.

Hinkaku. It’s either there in the genes at birth, or it’s not,” Koi breeder Mikinori Kurikara told Hindu Strait Times. “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.

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The aquatic creatures who aren’t fortunate enough to catch the eye of their breeder await a grim fate as feed for bigger fishy-foes. However, this is all part of an important network, which generates around US$31 million for the country through koi exportation.

While a single koi can cost more than a house, owners aren’t in it for the money. “It’s not a way of making money. It’s a way of spending it for fun,” Chinese koi collector Yaun Jiandong, a pharmaceutical boss, told Hindu Strait Times.

If you’re not lucky enough to see a koi pageant on your trip to Japan, you can still see them gliding through ponds across the nation, sure to hypnotize you with their array of gleaming colors and transport you into a state of zen.