The article is published with the kind permission of Russell Peters, PSKOI
Toshio Sakai was born is Mushigame of Yamakoshi village in Niigata, Japan. After his apprenticeship of Koi breeding under his father, Toshio left Niigata for Isawa to become an independent breeder. He founded Isawa Nishikigoi Center at the age of 18. He succeeded in the first breeding of Matsunosuke Sanshoku in Isawa. The offspring of the original Matsunosuke Sanshoku have received numerous awards. Among them, Chiba Grand Championship, Saitama Grand Championship. Kanto Koshin-Chiku Grand Championship and the All Japan Shinkokai Kokugyo (National Fish) awards as well as Grand Champion in 1994, 1995, 1997 and 2002.
There are many Koi keepers and dealers who will claim to have Tategoi for sale or in their ponds. Mostly the name Tategoi has become a descriptive word used loosely to describe young fish showing potential to improve as well as to justify the sale or purchase of a very expensive fish that looks terrible now and will probably look terrible forever. Sometimes the word is used for a Koi that the owner wants to get rid of at a very high price or is used for a Koi that the owner has paid too much for and is now justifying the purchase.
If one translates Tategoi from Japanese to English there is not a single word that can explain its meaning, but the basic meaning is ‘a Koi that is showing signs of top potential for the future’.
Another more accurate interpretation is that Tategoi is a Koi that should be grown on with the hope of reaching it envisaged potential.
The word to take note of in this translation is the word potential, just because a Koi is labeled ‘Tategoi’ it does not guarantee future greatness. As the Koi grows, the chances of a Tategoi fulfilling its potential becomes greater, because a three-year-old (sansai) Tategoi still has potential to maybe improve further but has already fulfilled quite a lot.
As far as genuine Tategoi are concerned, the unfortunate fact is that very few specialist dealers in South Africa will risk purchasing these Koi for re-sale, because the average customer will find them undesirable and very expensive. Customers may class them as junk and may also suspect that the dealer is profiteering on a royal scale. These customers cannot be blamed for this line of thought as very few will have experience of witnessing these rare Koi develop. The other side of the coin is also that very few breeders will sell their Tategoi to dealers. The demand by top breeders for Tategoi from top bloodlines is such that only a very few Koi keepers are privileged to buy Tategoi directly from breeders.
The reality is that breeders might set aside less than 1% of a spawning as true Tategoi and would class them as fish which would hold promise of achieving their excellence only in adult life. Such breeders are the only ones that can identify Tategoi and the identification is based on the personal knowledge of the traits of the parent fish and the development of fry from earlier spawning.
During a discussion meeting in 2001, which was reported on in NICHIRIN in 2002 a very informative discussion took place between some veteran ZNA members.
KIZAWA : "When it comes to a definition of a Tategoi, I think there are five points to consider. First of all, the quality must be good. Second, it must have the potential for growth. Then age. I must not be an adult. As for male or female, it isn’t true that a male can never be a Tategoi, Finally the balance of the patterning. If a Koi doesn’t have a nice patterning, it is half as much fun watching it grows. I think the rest depends on the individual, the person raising the Koi."
Mr. Tokutake, certified ZNA Koi Judge, is quoted on www.koi.com: “Keeping Tategoi is never an easy task. When I purchase 10 of the highest grade Tategoi in the spring, even if one of them turns out the way I had hoped for at the end of the growing season, I consider myself very fortunate”.
Small Tategoi Tosai is probably the hardest to select but is also the most available. The reason for this is that it is not possible to ascertain whether they are male or female at this young age. Breeders mostly want females to grow on but have to select the Koi purely on quality and pattern without knowing which ones are female and which ones are not. The gender of the Koi is unpredictable at this stage of their development.
Grading young Koi in Japan is quite simple. As the months of summer pass, the culling brings the numbers down and at this stage the Breeder then pre-selects his Tategoi to grow to Nisai (two years). Just prior to placing into the mud ponds in late spring/early summer these Tategoi are now graded for the last time and sometimes only half of them are placed into the mud ponds to grow on. Those that are left is no longer expensive and are now called ‘tateshita’ meaning that they did not make the grade. The best ‘tateshita’ is still very high quality Koi, but the breeder can only grow a certain number of Tategoi on, without compromising growth etc. These ‘tateshita” can be very easily purchased as the breeder no longer wants them.
When buying Tategoi Tosai in Japan from breeders they are far more accommodating with regards to the amount of money they want for such a small Koi, although many breeders are reluctant to sell their future fish at sensible prices. As the development of these Koi has only reached the first stage and the accompanying risks are still high, it is never wise to spend too much money on Tategoi Tosai.
When buying Tategoi Nisai, be prepared to pay much larger sums of money as it is now a completely different proposition. The females can now be identified and other quality factors are now eminently more apparent. The Koi has had one more year to live up to expectations regarding its potential. To buy a two year old Koi that is still regarded as a Tategoi by the breeder, you will have to pay a high price. Those that did not quite make the grade and have no obvious defects will still be a good buy. Those with obvious defects are now almost valueless.
When the two year old Koi are put into mud ponds to grow to Sansai (three years), the numbers have been reduced further but the quality has reached another level. Not only in the way they look but also in the amount of money it would cost to prize these fish away from the breeder.
A Koi can be regarded as Tategoi for up to seven years, maybe longer. It depends on the Breeder who may still feel a particular Koi has potential to develop further.
Photos: Roy Pillay
As can be seen from the above, a Tategoi from a Japanese breeder is a Koi that has survived many culling procedures as well as carrying the personal, approval of the breeder. However there are no guarantees, and the risk remains with the purchaser.
Now, the easiest way to sell a Koi is to label it Tategoi, triple the price on it and leave the hobbyist to it. If the Koi doesn't develop it must have been something the hobbyist did or didn't do!
The only time to forgive the miss-use of the word “Tategoi”, is if a poor hobbyist have paid too much for a particular Koi and he/she has a burning desire to justify the purchase, or to boast about a specific Koi. If one can tolerate the exaggeration by a fisherman, one can also keep the peace and tolerate a hobbyist calling his Koi, “Tategoi”!
Updated 24 January 2010
Understanding of koi coloration is still an inexact science. The aim of this article is to provide an overview of koi and to try and explain some of the mysterious changes you may notice in your own fish. Stability of colours is very difficult to predict because it may be influenced by a variety of factors. Some of these factors can be seen while inspecting the potential purchase, while others will be unknown to the breeder, retailer, koi specialist and buyer. These unknown factors will be described throughout the article. It must be stressed that to attempt an article like this and consider the changes of all varieties of koi it will be almost impossible if the changes in the Komonryu and Suminagashi, Shusui, Asagi and Ogon must also be taken into consideration. I will therefore concentrate on the possible changes associated with wagoi koi and in particular the Kohaku, Sanke, Showa, Utsurimono, Bekko, Goshiki etc., because it is in these varieties that aesthetically and economically, the most devastating changes will take place.
The colour seen on a koi is the effect produced by three colour pigments. These are contained within cells called chromataphores. The three pigments are red, black and yellow. A chromataphore only harbours one colour. Under a microscope the chromataphore resembles the roots of a plant. Tiny reflective spheres within the skin that complements the colour pigment are irridocytes. All of the colours we see on our Koi are a mixture of these components. For example orange is a combination of red and yellow chromataphores; brown is a mixture of black, yellow and red. I have never seen a colour plate in a koi that consists of just one type of chromataphore. It is therefore safe to assume that all colours displayed by a fish are a combination of chromataphores, creating the impression of a solid colour. If there are no chromataphores present the Koi will appear white due to the irridocytes. On the other hand, the position of the irridocytes within the skin affects its reflective properties. If they are on the surface of the scales the Koi will have a metallic appearance. If they are in the lower layers of the skin the fish will have a mat appearance. In some cases, a combination of the irridocytes and the chromataphores will produce reflective colours such as gold on the surface. Blue is unusual in that it is a result of deep lying black pigment with irridocytes in the middle of the layers of the skin. The irridocytes interfere with the light to give a blue colour. If the complexities of the mixture of chromataphores and the subsequent combination with irridocytes are taken into consideration, the challenges associated with breeding purple as well as green coloured koi is daunting.
Just like the irridocytes, the chromataphores may also be positioned on the surface of the skin, immediately under the scales or deep in the skin. If the chromataphores are very dense the coloration will also appear dense. However, the position of the chromataphores affects the 'stability' of the colour. The chromataphores on the surface of the skin will often produce unstable coloration due to them being removed or because they spread as the fish ages. Those deep in the skin are more stable and less likely to break up. The ideal is to have the same, dense colour pigment in all layers of the skin. This results in both a dense and stable colour. The chromataphores, as mentioned, are cells that can only hold pigment and cannot produce their own colour pigment. Therefore the fish have to consume it. In the confines of a Koi pond there is insufficient naturally occurring pigment-holding foods available to satisfy the Koi's requirements, therefore it is important to feed colour-enhancing foods. As with all Koi food, it is important that the colour enhancing food given is of high quality to ensure that the pigments are in a form that the fish can absorb into its body. Pigments in the diet, carotenoids to be specific have a lot to do with the maintenance of colour. There are a lot of carotenoids in shrimp and fish meal and there are colour pigments in spirulina and canthaxanthin, a common additive in food. If colour foods are not given to your Koi, the chromataphores would not be filled with pigment and the Koi will look pale or poorly coloured. This can result in a Koi of high potential quality only looking mediocre. Feeding a colour food would greatly enhance the appearance of such a Koi - but could not make a poor Koi great. The secret in keeping koi and allow the natural colour development to take its course, is to feed sparingly and allow the koi to utilize only the amount of colour enhancers that is necessary to develop the colour over a long period of time, till maturity. If this is rushed, the koi will reach an artificial state of finish which it will not be able to maintain for the same length of time that it should have if the enhancement of colour was allowed to take its natural course.
When the chromataphores are filled with pigment, the excess is passed through the Koi in the faeces. It is possible to get white areas of the koi becoming pink due to a temporary build up of Erythrin. This pigment is not absorbed in chromataphores and will quickly disappear as soon as the amount of colour food given is reduced.
There are two types of Beni (hi or red) that will be encountered, namely a red based and an orange based hi plate. Both these types of red can normally be identified at a fairly young age in koi.
As the name implies, the red based hi plate will give the tosai an appearance of bright deep purplish-red and may easily swing the hobbyist to buy this beautiful young koi that looks almost the same as the champion koi that we notice in books and magazines. As the fish gets more mature the colour may become “hard” and will not have the lustre and refinement that is so appreciated in mature koi. It is said that this type of hi will deteriorate very quickly under bad pond management. As the koi develops it will seem as if the hi “bleed” into the white where the two colours meet. This type of hi also breaks up more easily, forming scattered hi marking that move away from the main hi plate (tobi hi). Also when the fish swims and the body bends, a white edge will be noticeable between the scales. A good quality koi will have many layers of colour deep down into the skin, therefore this red based hi should be avoided.
The second type of hi is the orange based hi plate. The young koi will appear orange and distinctly unfinished. Koi keepers in general avoid this type of hi because of the unassuming appearance. This orange plate is the preferred colour because under the correct management, it will be more stable and will deepen in colour with age. It will also be more refined and retain the youthful appearance for longer.
Because fish is placed in a mud pond purely for the accelerated growth, the development of colour is temporarily ignored. When a young koi is harvested from a mud pond, it will appear faded. The hi will be thin and orange, the sumi will be grey and the shiroji will be creamy. This is normal and the breeder will perhaps keep the best as his “tategoi” whose colour will develop over time. Because the market demands bright colours, many breeders choose to place the rest of the harvest in concrete ponds and feed colour enhancing food to the koi to brighten them up. In the process, growth is sacrificed and hi will be finished early. I have seen countless young fish that have returned to the light orange colour within a few weeks after they were released in the koi keeper’s pond. Unfortunately, the quicker the pigment cells are encouraged to develop, the quicker the decline after the state of finish has been achieved. Even koi keepers with exceptional skill will only succeed in delaying the decline for a while.
The hi colour (not the pattern), tends to develop from the head towards the tail. Early signs of the weakening of the hi can show in one of three ways, namely from the head, from the kiwa, or as a total weakening of the whole hi plate. All three are equally common, but the total weakening of the hi is startling and may turn an excellent fish into something worthless within a few weeks. Weakening of the hi around the kiwa, is more gradual and there may be indications that this may happen when inspecting a young koi. This is one of the reasons why such emphasis is placed on clear-cut kiwa by knowledgeable persons when selecting koi. Potential fading hi can be detected at or around the kiwa edge. The hi starts to weaken around the last scale, showing a little white or just lightening of the colour. The impression of “bleeding” hi at the kiwa may also indicate a future problem. If you see a koi in your collection where the red pattern on the head change, it is also time to be concerned but at least you can see this happening. If it is a koi you are thinking of buying you will mostly have no idea. If you inspect the koi carefully, you can often see pinkish markings where the hi use to be, or pink/red spots where the pigment is still a little stronger. The reason for the loss of hi should be distinguished from hi-kui which is a disease. Most type of degeneration of the hi is either through the genetic make up of the koi or through a trigger (poor conditions etc). On the whole the purple type hi is the least stable, with the more orange types being better at holding their colour, but all types and shades can break up. Some koi which are vulnerable to loosing their hi can have a trigger to start the failing, when conditions return to normal the recession is halted. It will however start to fade again with the first hiccup.
All the above should be remembered when considering a new koi. Look closely at the edges of the patterns and pick a koi with an even shade from head to tail and hope for the best. Just remember, the hi on both cheap koi and expensive koi can fail.
Sumi, whether it is on a Showa, Sanke, Utsuri or Bekko remains an enigma. Sumi is normally submerged in a young koi, and appears bluish. This submerged sumi may appear over time and become dark glossy black like printers ink. Some of these bluish markings will disappear completely. There are sometimes sumi that in young koi will be up and prominent. This sumi will either disappear or will become obscure and unattractive. As the koi develops, it is said the sumi will grow while hi will remain either the same or will stretch with the koi to a lesser extent. This makes the prediction of how sumi will develop very difficult. A general rule is that the earlier a sumi pattern is defined and finished, the poorer its quality will be. It may remain low quality sumi, it may break up into jari sumi or it may disappear. I have also witnessed that submerged sumi may be covered by the white (shiroji) if the latter colour is very strong and thick. When considering a young koi, submerged sumi is therefore preferred because it stands a better chance of becoming the ideal thick, glossy sumi that is preferred. Although it should be submerged, concentrate on those areas where it has partially surfaced. This should be of high quality. If one or two tejima stripes are noticeable in Bekko or Sanke, or Motoguro in Showa, it may be an indication of future quality. Sumi in the mouth of a Showa may also indicate strong sumi.
Photos: Neville Boardman
While hi develops from the head to the tail, the sumi develops from the tail towards the head. Weak sumi on the peduncle will therefore indicate weak colouration while strong sumi on the head/shoulder may indicate that the sumi may be strong. Genetics, water quality, feeding as well as temperature will influence the quality of the sumi over time. Water temperature has a marked effect on the quality of sheen and colour. Both hi and sumi will become more intense, while the white becomes better finished. This will only benefit the appearance of the colour if the chromataphores are distributed on the surface of the skin, immediately under the scales or deep in the skin. If a fish don’t have this distribution of chromataphores, cooler water will not benefit the appearance of the fish to the same extent.
Sunlight does contribute to the health of koi, because it assists in the conversion of sterols in the skin into vitamins. It is also accepted that sunlight is important to finish koi with a healthy gloss. If you leave koi in the dark, you probably have noticed that it becomes a little paler at night. You may have also noticed, that young koi in an indoor fish tank without a full spectrum of lighting, will change from a reddish orange to a pale orange colour with silver washouts, but it will not turn completely white. Remember that the orange colour in the skin is not a tan, but cells containing pigment. It is not yet sure what long term effect the lack of decent light will have on a koi. Some people claim that too much sunlight may bleach the colours of a koi, or even cause sunburn. It is perhaps possible in shallow ponds in full sun, but sunlight loses its energy rapidly when passing through water. High energy ultra violet can only penetrate the water for a few centimetres. Direct sunlight may have an effect in overheating a pond.
Each Koi is born with a fixed number of chromataphores which remains relatively constant throughout its life. As the Koi ages and grows, these chromataphores, have to cover a larger area of skin therefore there is a tendency for the coloration to become paler (due to the chromataphores becoming less dense) or to fragment. This is why many stunning young Koi are not as attractive when they are slightly larger. Buying young fish from a known quality bloodline usually means you are buying fish with more dense chromataphores. This will result in the colour remaining even when the Koi has grown. In some varieties (e.g. Sanke and Showa) it is common for the pattern to change considerably as the fish grows due to the surface colour fragmenting and revealing a deeper different colour. When your koi turns white it means the chromataphores were destroyed and it cannot be reversed.
Chromataphores are branched cells, within which the colour pigment can be moved. The distribution of this pigment is affected by a number of different factors. Different water quality conditions can have a major impact on the coloration of the Koi. Raised levels of pollutants (e.g. ammonia, nitrite or nitrate) may cause the koi to lose its colour. pH and hardness affect coloration differently; red pigment tends to spread in softer, more acidic water, whereas black pigment spreads in harder more alkaline water and vice versa. Background colour may also influence the colour. Although it is difficult to merge into the background for a red and white koi, they do try to do so. Against a pale background the koi will contract the pigment to make them as pale as possible. The opposite occurs when the Koi is next to a dark background. This is one of the reasons why blue vats are used at koi shows to ensure the koi looks at its best. Salt is often added to Koi ponds as a treatment or to control nitrite toxicity, however, it causes the pigment to concentrate resulting in poorer coloration. It is said that long term exposure may cause this to become permanent. The same is true for antibiotics, whether added to the water or injected and malachite green based remedies.
Koi which have lived in an algae rich, green pond often appear intensely coloured due to the colour pigment spreading in the chromataphores. At high summer temperatures pigments contract; at cool autumn and winter values they expand resulting in the koi looking at their best in the cooler months of the year. This list could be continued, but hopefully some of the examples my help to explain colour changes in your Koi which you have observed. Unfortunately these things don't happen in isolation, making it very difficult to ascertain exactly what caused the change in coloration of your koi.
Below is an example of a young imported koi that is rapidly losing its colouration. When purchased, the koi was an ideal example of deep orange-red. There was a suspicion that for a fish of 18 centimetres the colour was already nearing a finished state. The koi stayed in an fairly algae rich pond for four months with no apparent change in the colouration but close scrutiny will reveal that scales around the dorsal fin and particularly near the lateral line was starting to fade around the edges of the scales. For various reasons the fish had to be removed from the pond and it was transported just a few kilometres and introduced to another pond.
The changes witnessed here occurred in only three weeks. The water quality in the new pond was impeccable, the food remained the same but the companions in the new pond were mostly huge fish. The reason for this dramatic change will remain open for speculation, but the opinion is held that it is a genetic problem, exacerbated by early finishing of the colour, as well as the stress caused by the bewilderment of being placed in a confined space amongst the huge perceived “predators” around it.
The next example is a young Showa from a respected breeder in Japan. The fish was imported and photographed in June 2009. The second photo was taken in November 2009. The reasons for the dramatic change are unknown.
The same can happen to Goshiki.
Photos: Romie Strydom
All the abovementioned, points to the fact that purchasing a young/small koi is really the same as throwing a dice. Throw it and hope for the best. Although there are certain signs to consider, the buyer is really at a disadvantage. All the role-players in the supply chain know more that the buyer.
The facts a buyer may not know
Facts a seller may not know
Facts a breeder may not know
It is obvious why some koi keepers visit Japan to select their koi for show purposes. The fact remains that if there is no “rapport” between the buyer and the breeder, the list of “unknown factors” will only marginally get shorter.
Koi have an elegant yet simple shape and healthy ones are fitted out with a physical structure and organs that are admirably suited to their way of life in water. The body is made up from three parts: The head region, trunk region, and caudal region. Horizontally, the upper portion is the dorsal area, and below the lateral line, the body is called the ventral area. Koi quickly discern the frequencies produced by various activities around the pond like their master's voice, familiar footsteps etc.
Outside Japan, people tend to use the word "Koi" for these beautiful ornamental fish. "Koi" is actually the Japanese word for common carp that are found in the rivers and lakes. "Nishikigoi" however, is the Japanese word for “Brocaded Carp”, the special breed of carp, which we all admire today.
Throughout the years, the breed has been improved and is divided into many categories, while more new varieties are created every year. This article is intended as broad guidelines on selecting a suitable koi for your pond, regardless of the variety.
Just remember, there is normally not a “set in concrete” price for koi. Actually it has been said that a koi has very little value until there is a willing buyer. The seller and the buyer therefore decide on a price depending upon the knowledge of both. The price also varies according to the size, quality, and condition of the fish. A dealer however may have a limit and may not drop below a certain price.
Many times, an expensive koi will change in the course of its growth and become a worthless one. Likewise, an inexpensive koi could change into a champion (unlikely, but it could). The knowledge of dealers and Koi keepers determine the future of the fish. The pond environment can change the condition of the koi, for better or for worse. An expensive and beautiful fish can lose its colour in six months because of a poorly conditioned pond. In a pond with a good system and feeding regime, the colour will deepen and become beautiful
Quality levels for koi
There are various levels of koi, and dealers try to grade them for ease of determining prices per display pond. I will not attempt to describe the Japanese grading (from A right through to SSSSSS) because it is fairly confusing and no dealers in South Africa grade it that way. Further more, some dealers sell koi by size, making a worthless big fish fairly expensive. For the average koi keeper it will be sufficient to distinguish between three types of quality that can be considered for your pond.
Pond quality koi can be purchased at local pet shops and breeders. Mostly this type of koi is bred locally with a mixed bloodline. Often it is not known who did the breeding and most are not suitable for competition. However, they are very inexpensive to buy and enjoyable in the pond. Most hobbyists have purchased one of these fish at one time or the other and are content with such a fish in their pond. Pond quality is mostly koi that lacks refinement. The most common traits that will be noticeable in pond quality fish are poor skin quality, uneven colouration, unbalanced patterns, fading pattern edges and scattered colour plates.
Ornamental koi are not bad quality. They may have been bred from good quality parents, have good bloodlines, good conformation, and beautiful colour. The real difference between ornamental and show quality koi, lies in the pattern. In most show quality koi, in addition to the very important body conformation, is the Jihada (texture of the skin), Kiwa (edge of pattern) and evenness of colour. Most ornamental types have an unbalanced pattern with many faults, but they are very beautiful and can be bought inexpensively.
There are many requirements to be considered when selecting show quality Koi. They should have:
The experts consider bloodline to be an extremely important element and will advise you that most show quality koi are bred from parents with a good bloodline.
When one considers the many problems that face the breeders, wholesalers and dealers, the dedicated hard work spread out over several years plus the costs involved it is understandable why Show quality Koi are expensive.
Each Koi has different possibilities, size, and quality. Mostly these are genetic factors, but koi keepers can destroy a genetically superior fish with questionable koi keeping skills. Also, through good koi keeping skills, certain good characteristics can be enhanced, but not to a point where it will make a mediocre koi a show winner. Some koi, which achieves its best condition while still small, will not usually, maintain this quality as it grows. On the other hand, if a large, mature Koi becomes “finished” and in top condition it will normally keep the same condition for a long time, unless as stated, placed in a bad environment
As a koi keeper, you need to decide what level of koi quality you are looking for. It can either be pond quality, ornamental quality, or show quality. Show quality can be very expensive. However if you are not interested in Koi competitions, you do not have to spend a lot of money to enjoy beautiful fish. Do not expect to get show quality pattern with pond type of fish. If you are thinking about competing in a Koi show, you must consider an entirely different selection process. All show quality Nishikigoi are not expensive, but most are.
First determine the amount of money you would like to spend. Many Koi keepers do not want to spend much, but want the very best and this is almost impossible. With a well-maintained pond and a good filter system, it is possible you could improve and polish a good quality Koi. Normally, small Koi are less expensive than large ones but, sometimes, “finished” small Koi are more expensive than “unfinished” large Koi. Some knowledge regarding potential is required when buying small Koi because they will change drastically during a six-month period.
The best way to learn about changes that occur in young fish is to buy young fish and observe, observe and observe. Observe how pattern and colours change with body growth. If the size of the red pattern does not keep up with the growth of the body then the body will diminish it. Another way is to visit and talk to people who are knowledgeable. You can complement the above by taking pictures when you purchase your Koi, and then every few months.
Chris Neaves compiled a handy Pondside Identification Chart to recocnised all the varieties. Click here to see it.