Koi - or nishikigoi - are growing increasingly popular overseas. Sometimes called "swimming gems," the Japanese freshwater ornamental fish are attracting attention from fans worldwide, many of whom are wealthy individuals in Asia and the West.
According to Finance Ministry trade data, exports of koi and other freshwater ornamental fish rose from ¥2.22 billion (S$28 million) in 2008 to ¥4.3 billion in 2018, roughly doubling over the past decade.
At Sakai Fish Farm Co. in Mihara, Hiroshima Prefecture, a buyer from Taiwan successfully bid ¥203 million for a 9-year-old female koi at an auction in October last year.
"About four years ago, koi started fetching higher prices thanks to growing interest in Asia," said Kentaro Sakai, 45, the president of the fish farm company.Buyers excitedly raise their hands during a koi auction in Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture, on April 19.Photo: The Japan News/Asia News Network
Today, the company exports koi to 15 countries and regions throughout Asia and Europe, and foreign sales are said to make up 95 per cent of its sales.
"It's so much fun watching their big, beautiful bodies," said Yuan Jiandong, a company president from China. A koi enthusiast, Yuan was in Japan to purchase more of the fish. "I'm planning to build a Japanese-style garden in three years where the koi will swim," he said, smiling while holding up the design for the garden.
"There are many customers who don't mind paying extravagant sums for really great koi," said a Singaporean dealer who buys koi in Japan and sells them back home.
The Chuetsu region in Niigata Prefecture, which has a long history nurturing koi, is a prime destination for foreign buyers.
"In Europe, where gardening is popular, various types of koi are kept to add colour to gardens and ponds. In Asia, koi are regarded as an auspicious fish, and it is believed that introducing koi to a pond brings good fortune to a company," said Futoshi Mano, 46, the president of Dainichi Koi Farm, which organises auctions.
In contrast, domestic demand for koi appears to be dwindling.
"There's not enough land in urban areas, so many ponds have been filled to make room for parking lots," said Tamotsu Nagashima, 69, a koi dealer from Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture.
"Moreover, non-Japanese customers have pushed up prices, so koi are increasingly too expensive for many," he said, expressing mixed feelings.