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Japan’s History of Goldfish – Variations, Art, and More –

Goldfish (“kingyo” in Japanese) is a fish that is known for grace while swimming in an aquarium. Simply watching a beautiful, lustrous goldfish in the water will make you feel relaxed. This article will focus on the charms of the beloved and beautiful goldfish! Art pieces and sweets inspired by goldfish will also be showcased, so be sure to read until the end!

The Origins of Goldfish

Goldfish originated from a type of red fish that was discovered among the sea of wild common carp in southern China some 2,000 years ago. The goldfish that are seen today are thus the result of mutation and selective breeding, with the red fish in China being the original breed.

History in Japan

The established theory in Japan is that the goldfish arrived from China around 1502. At that time, goldfish were said to have been kept as a rare and strange pet of aristocrats and the wealthy. Thereafter, kingyo-sukui (goldfish scooping) became popular during the Edo period (1603 – 1868), leading to the sale of goldfish in towns. From then on until today, it has come to be a deeply familiar fish for Japanese people. It is a particularly beloved summer feature in Japan that will make you feel “coolness” and “healing” with the way it elegantly swims in water on a hot summer’s day.

Representative Types of Goldfish

It is said that there are more than 100 varieties of goldfish, so let's find out what types of goldfish exist in Japan, including fish with high rarity value, centering on the staple types seen in specialty shops.

Wakin

Wakin is the type that is said to be the most standard type for Japanese people, and it has a very long history. It has a slender body resembling the ancestor of goldfish, the crucian (common) carp, and is generally red or red-and-white in color. This breed is said to be especially strong among the many goldfish varieties out there.

Shubunkin

This breed is the result of the cross-breeding of the Wakin and Sanshoku Demekin (Calico Telescope) goldfish. It is characterized by its mottled pattern and slim body. It has gained popularity for its beautiful long fins that elegantly move in the water.

Demekin

The term “deme” means “protruding eyes”. As its name suggests, this fish has distinctly huge protruding eyes. Aside from the Aka Demekin (Red Telescope) that is said to be the original breed, there are also the Kuro Demekin (Black Moor) that was born from natural mutation, and the Sanshoku Demekin (Calico Telescope) that has three colors: white, red and black.

Tosakin

Tosakin are pure domestically bred goldfish that have been passed on for generations in Kochi City in Kochi Prefecture. The breed has been registered as a protected species in Kochi, and is characterized by its big tail that spreads like a fan in water. It is also sometimes called the “queen of goldfish” for its extremely graceful form when swimming that makes it seem like it's dancing in water.

Oranda Shishigashira

This fish is characterized by the fatty lump on its head. While this breed arrived in Nagasaki from China via Okinawa from around 1789 - 1800, Japan at that time was still implementing sakoku (national isolation), so people tended to call any rare import by the term “Dutch goods.” It was for that reason that this fish got the name “Oranda” (Netherlands). Further, the name shishigashira means “head of a lion.”

Tancho

This fish was named “tancho” because it looks like a tancho (Japanese crane) with its red bump on the head and white color everywhere else. It came from China, and its original name was apparently “Aka-boshi” (red hat) to refer to its red cap. Its body shape is similar to the above Oranda Shishigashira.

Ranchu

This is a goldfish species that came from China during the Edo period (1603 - 1868). It is characterized by its lack of dorsal fin that was a result of natural mutation from Wakin. It is also a famous breed that is called the “king of goldfish” that has a huge following among enthusiasts in Japan who love its elliptical body type that highlights its beautiful luster.

Nankin

A breed that underwent improvements in Shimane Prefecture around 1750, Nankin is a registered natural protected species in Shimane. There are various theories on the origin of its name, such as the theory that it is based on Nanjing in China. This fish is known for its small head, having no dorsal fin and having a tail that is divided into four segments.

Edonishiki

The Edonishiki (Calico Ranchu) is the result of the cross-breeding between the Ranchu and the Azumanishiki. It has no dorsal fin, has mosaic-like transparent scales, and has a beautiful mottling of red and black.

How to Appreciate Goldfish

In the olden days, goldfish were usually put in a tub or bucket and then viewed from the top. Today, however, it has become more popular to put a goldfish in a glass bowl or aquarium and then watch it from the side. You can see them everywhere nowadays, as they are not only kept inside houses anymore, but are also put in water tanks found in eating and drinking establishments, among other places.

Do Not Be Limited to Live Goldfish! Take a Look at Japan’s Unique Goldfish Art

Goldfish, a fish that is deeply familiar to Japanese people, often appears as a motif in various artworks. For instance, you will see them in ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) made in the Edo period, as well as in the Art Aquarium that has become increasingly popular in recent years.
You can catch the works of Riusuke Fukahori, a famous goldfish artist in Japan, at the Hiratsuka Museum of Art in Kanagawa Prefecture until Sunday, September 2, 2018. Using unique techniques, Fukahori draws goldfish that look like they are about to swim.

Goldfish Art in Ukiyo-e

The goldfish art that is most famous in the world of ukiyo-e is Kingyo Zukushi (Goldfish) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a famous sketch artist during the Edo period. It is a group of nine art pieces that humorously depict goldfish as people in such situations as enjoying a drinking party and holding an umbrella in the rain. Most of the pieces in this art are stored at the Royal Museum of Art and History in Belgium, but there are also some exhibited in Japan. You will get to see charming and adorable goldfish, so make sure to stop by if your itinerary fits the schedule of the exhibition!

Art Aquarium 2018

Art Aquarium is an exhibition that is held from summer until autumn every year, showcasing fantastic artworks that are inspired by goldfish.
For 2018, it will be held in two cities in Japan: Tokyo and Nagoya. Guests will get to enjoy the beautiful and luxurious Japanese world through this fantastical aquarium, and the play of lights, music and videos. Entrance fee is 1,000 JPY (incl. tax) for general visitors.

Tokyo
Schedule for 2018: July 6th (Friday) to September 24th (Monday)
Venue: Nihonbashi Mitsui Hall (COREDO Muromachi 1, 5F)

Nagoya
Schedule for 2018: July 21st (Saturday) to September 16th (Sunday)
Venue: Matsuzakaya Art Museum (Matsuzakaya Nagoya Minami 7F)

※Photo is for illustration purposes

Art Aquarium 2018

Goldfish Souvenirs

If you want to buy a souvenir, then how about an item that was made with goldfish as design inspiration?
Goldfish, a traditional sight in summer in Japan, is a motif that you will often find in fans, wind chimes and other products that are used on hot summer days. Of all the products available, though, the one that is most highly recommended is the tenugui (hand towel) since it is not bulky and can be easily purchased. It is a cotton cloth that you can use many different ways, such as to wipe your hands or body or to decorate your room. Some of the famous manufacturers of these towels are Kamawanu and Eirakuya.


Goldfish also appear quite a lot in wagashi (Japanese-style sweets) that are sold during the summer season. For instance, there is Kingyo (Goldfish) by Minamoto Kitcho-an. Their Kingyo is a cool-looking confectionery that has an adorable goldfish inside juicy Muscat grape-flavored jelly.
Meanwhile, the artistic confectionery called Kingyo by Shichijo Kanshundo is inspired by the famous artwork of Rimpa, a major school of Japanese art. This sweet is a colorful yokan (a kind of jellied confectionery) with scattered gold foils in the kohakukan (a kind of sweet that is made by putting sweet syrup in agar-agar dissolved over heat, and then letting the mixture solidify) with a goldfish made from bean paste gracefully swimming inside.

※Photo is for illustration purposes

The goldfish is a fish that is very close and familiar to Japanese people. If you visit Japan, make sure to experience their charm.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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