Popular overseas and with an increasing number of fans, nishikigoi or Japanese carp, are classified into more than 100 varieties. Also known as “koi,” they are also called “living jewels.” Information about nishikigoi is disseminated through the internet and social media; and many koi enthusiasts and tourists from all over the world visit Nagaoka City in Niigata Prefecture, the birthplace of nishikigoi.
It is generally said that magoi (“true carp”), the species from which nishikigoi originated, came from Persia in Central Asia. However, recent investigations have unearthed fossilized carp in Japan dating back to approximately 25 to 5 million years ago, lending credence to the theory that carp also naturally existed in Japan.
Nihon Shoki, the oldest chronicles of Japan completed in 720, contains a reference to Emperor Keiko (who ruled from 71 CE) releasing carp in a pond. This means that people in Japan have been keeping carp more than 1900 years ago.
From Magoi to Nishikigoi
The nishikigoi we know today came into existence about 200 years ago during the Bunka/Bunsei period (1804 – 1830) in Yamakoshi Village (currently Nagaoka City) and in Ojiya City, both in Niigata Prefecture as a mutated variant of edible carp. Therefore, the birthplace of nishikigoi is credited to both Yamakoshi Village and Ojiya City in Niigata Prefecture.
The area is a mountainous region, where residents created terraced paddies on mountainsides for growing rice and vegetables. To provide water to the paddies, carp were kept in a water supply reservoir on top of the paddies, and the carp were mainly used as food (animal protein) during the winter when the snow was deep. These carp suddenly mutated, wherein carp with varying colors and patterns emerged from the all-black magoi they originally kept.
The farmers thought they were unusual, so they bred them to create even more beautiful and rarer carp. At first, breeding these “mutant carp” was only a hobby, but eventually, such carp became widely known as they were used for bartering goods from other areas. This led to breeding carp as a business rather than a hobby, resulting in the creation of several carp varieties to this day.
The Name “Nishikigoi”
Nishikigoi emerged about 200 years ago, but at the time they were called “irogoi” (colored carp), “hanagoi” (flower carp), “moyogoi” (patterned carp), and “kawarigoi” (variant carp). Later, kawarigoi were exhibited at the Tokyo Taisho Expo held in 1914, where they became known all over Japan. In particular, carp colored red and white attracted much attention because they evoked the Japanese flag, and eventually such carp became known worldwide. At the time, such “variant carp” were called “flower carp” and “colored carp,” but since the Second World War, they became known as nishikigoi.