Here’s how Japan’s king of carp breeds his million-dollar koi fish

The majestic Koi fish dons its pristine-looking scales with vibrant colors shimmering under the glistening rays of the sun. It’s one of the most beautiful and graceful fish in the world. They were once bred for food, but due to genetic mutation, they now possess mesmerizing colors like the ones we know exist today.

Koi fish is a symbol of good fortune or luck. It’s often associated with adversity, strength, and purpose. In some countries, the fish also represent perseverance, abundance, and resilience. The Japanese are known for being the first in history to breed Koi fish with naturally occurring mutations.

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Fast-forward to the 21st century; the elegant fish has become a coveted collector’s item—some of which are worth more than a million dollars. With the beauty of the koi fish and their undeniable beauty, they truly deserve the moniker of “living jewels.”

Kentaro Sakai, a champion breeder of Nishikigoi carp, owns a fish farm that breeds and sells the majestic Koi in Hiroshima, Japan.  “I inherited this carp-breeding business from my ancestors, and initially, my father taught me how to breed Nishikigoi,” Sakai revealed. When Sakai’s father passed away, he took over the family business and continued the craft he inherited from his ancestors.

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Sakai estimates that there are approximately 70 different types of Nishikigoi. The type he breeds and collects is the Koh-Haku and the Taisho Sanshoku. The former having red and white color while the latter having red, white, and black colors.

Both carp breeds Sakai takes care have 20 to 30 years of lifespan. But the living jewels’ beauty peak when they are ten years old. Sakai’s carps are famous for their great shape and lustrous scales. He prides himself with the most beautiful carps donning glossy and lustrous color.

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Sakai is not the only person in Japan who breeds and collects carps for a living. In fact, koi breeding is a highly-competitive sport in Japan. Judges in koi exhibitions roam around the tanks to observe the competing koi fish.

Isamu Hattori, the person who runs Japan’s main association of koi carp breeders, explains that the Koi’s curvature accounts for 60 percent of the final score.

Thirty percent comes from the glorious color of the fish, while the remaining 10 percent is the je ne sais quoi that all judges can’t truly define. Hattori explains that this 10 percent falls under “Hinkaku,” a concept best translated as the “presence” or “aura” of the fish.

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It’s either there in the fish’s genes or not. It’s the job of the breeders to sort through hundreds—perhaps even thousands of koi fish they’ve hatched.

Breeding the perfect-looking Koi is a difficult and meticulous endeavor. It requires the hands-on approach of the breeders. Hatchlings need to receive a care regimen that involves the best food and impeccable water quality.

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“When it comes to the important components of breeding Nishikigoi, how clean the water and how much delicious food can be provided for the carp is essential,” Sakai said. Sakai emphasizes the quality of food his koi fish receive. Nishikigoi has a highly developed sense of taste, capable of determining if the meals they get are good or bad.

Each year, over 2000 exhibit-worthy Nishikigoi are paraded to the judges and the entire koi-breeding community. Sakai won his first competition back in 2000 and has been champion for 11 times since, beating hundreds of fellow determined koi breeders each year.

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After each Koi has competed, they are auctioned off to collectors in Japan and countries all over the world. Sakai’s carp, called “S legend,” won the competition last year. It was sold at a whopping price of 203 million JPY, roughly $1.9 million.

“Of course, winning at the competition is important, but if the customers feel happy to have my Nishikigoi, it leads to my fulfillment and satisfaction,” Sakai revealed. “Nishikigoi are like my children. Seeing them grow up and become more beautiful is my pleasure.” He added.

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Perhaps this is the reason why Sakai manages to win so many koi exhibitions and competitions. He brings the “Hinkaku” out of his koi fish with all the love and care he devotes to them.

Watch this short video and get to know how Sakai breeds million-dollar koi fish: