• Life & Culture

The Koi Carp Fish in Japan: What is Their Significance?


In many countries, the koi carp is simply a type of fish that is often found at garden centres or in ponds. In Japan, however, the koi carp is a national symbol, and they are greatly adored as such. 


So what is behind this reverence for the koi carp, why did it first occur, and how does it manifest in modern Japanese society? 


In this blog, we’ll examine the symbolism and cultural significance of the koi carp in Japan. We’ll also look at the various breeds and types of koi carp in Japan, and their key characteristics.


So, whether you’re a koi carp fanatic or just enjoy learning about the quirks of other cultures, explore the fascinating world of Japanese koi carp.


Why are koi carp significant in Japan?

For several reasons, koi carp are important in Japanese culture. In literature and art, they are frequently portrayed as emblems of fortitude, tenacity, and good fortune. However, they are first and foremost regarded as lucky symbols.


Koi are also well-liked in Japan for their beauty as well as their symbolic meaning – because of this, they are frequently kept in outdoor ponds or inside aquariums. They often have a variety of colors and patterns, which makes them pleasing to look at.


Meanwhile, in Japanese culture, they are also symbolic of love and friendship, which means they are frequently presented as gifts to friends and loved ones. In Japanese gardens specifically, a koi carp is considered to foster harmony and tranquillity, as they are said to bring luck to both the garden and its inhabitants.


Koi carp are generally regarded as a cherished component of Japanese culture, and this is something which is deeply ingrained in the nation’s history and traditions.


So much so, that many Japanese people choose to get a koi carp tattoo on their body, as a physical manifestation of all of their symbolic qualities. 




Why are koi carp symbolic of Japanese Culture?

Koi carp have a special symbolic significance in Japanese culture, and have had for centuries.


According to Japanese folklore, koi have the ability to swim upstream despite strong currents and can even change into dragons if they can ascend a particular waterfall. As a result, they have become emblems of tenacity and embody the desire to overcome challenges.


In this way, koi carp are seen as having similar traits to a samurai warrior, who, in their legend, also battles against the odds to achieve their goals. 


Japanese culture is so tied to koi carp that there are a number of proverbs that relate to the fish. These include ‘Koi no takinobori’, which means ‘A koi’s swim up the waterfall’, and ‘Oyobanu koi no takinobori’, which means ‘A koi unable to swim up the waterfall’.


Again, both of these sayings refer to the koi carp’s representation of overcoming adversity and being resilient. 


What are the different types of koi carp in Japan?

There are many different variations of koi carp in Japan. Often, their colour is the only thing that differentiates them from other types, and this difference is the result of a deliberate breeding program that began in the 1900s. New ones are being created all the time. 


Here, we’ve listed some of the most well-known types of koi carp, as well as how you can spot them based on their physical appearance:

  • Taisho Sanshoku – white with black and red patches
  • Kohaku – white with red patches
  • Showa Sanshoku – black with red and white patches
  • Goromo – red and blue coloured scales
  • Bekko – white, red, or yellow koi with black patches
  • Chagoi – brown or olive-colored koi
  • Asagi – blue koi with red and white underbellies
  • Ogon – silver koi with gold
  • Koromo – white koi with black patches on the scales
  • Hikari Moyo – silver koi with patterns on the scales

Where do koi carp originate from?

Koi carp originate from the Amur River region, which spans part of the border between Russia and China. It is not known exactly when the first koi carp came to Japan, but it is thought to be around 1000 years ago.

In the early 20th Century, the popularity of private koi ownership exploded, and they were soon bred to have different patterns. This new brand of colored koi is called ‘Nishikigoi’. 


This trend of owning carp has since been adopted by the rest of the world. However, Japanese koi carp are considered the finest breed of carp anywhere, and many hobbyists will travel to Japan solely to obtain a Nishikigoi carp.



What is a Japanese koi garden?

A Japanese koi garden is a type of landscaped outdoor space that features koi ponds as a focal point. These ponds hold koi carp with the aim of highlighting their beauty and promoting their growth. 


As well as this, Japanese koi gardens often include ornamental and landscape features that tie in with the serene and Zen culture Japan is known for. For example, pebble beaches, rocky stone shores and traditional bridges are often employed to add a sense of peacefulness. 


Japanese koi gardens are prominent across Japan, but, if you are not in a position to travel to Japan, don’t worry! There are Japanese water gardens all over the world, and they have become popular even with people with no connection to the country’s culture.


The last word on the significance of koi carp in Japan

That’s all for our guide to the significance of koi carp in Japan. We’re sure you’ll agree that they are beautiful animals, and the fact they are so beloved in Japanese culture only makes their appeal stronger!


Before you book your next trip to a Japanese koi garden, why not check out our other guides to Japanese culture, including how AI and robots are viewed, and how to understand Japan’s cultural nuances


Get in touch with us today for more help on Japanese social customs, careers and more.


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