It’s often stated that pattern is the least significant criteria when assessing the quality of a Koi, we are told that a judge will consider Koi against the ‘accepted’ rules of judging weighting body shape/structure as most important, followed by skin quality which includes colour depth and quality, finally finishing with the actual pattern of the Koi. For me, this grossly underestimates the importance of pattern and in this article I will explain why.

All Koi are unique, no two have exactly the same pattern and that is one of the intriguing things about Nishikigoi.

Throughout this article we will concentrate on, and use, Kohaku as examples.

From the very first culls of Kohaku the primary consideration, assuming the fry is not deformed, is its pattern.  At just 15mm or so in size there are elements of the pattern that are identifiable and that dictate which fry are kept.  I have to qualify this statement by saying that I’m now referring to ‘serious’ breeders, some will produce garden centre mass market Koi that just have to be red and white, arguably that means they have a pattern I guess, but the examples hereafter relate to serious breeders.

The pictures below all show examples of Kohaku patterns which would all be rejected, in my experience, at an early stage, by this I mean within the first 4 months.

The first example would have perhaps survived a couple of culls, but within a couple of months this Koi would likely be rejected, the pattern is far too loose.

The first example would have perhaps survived a couple of culls, but within a couple of months this Koi would likely be rejected, the pattern is far too loose.

There was actually a Koi like this at Momotaro on my earlier visits, a pet of Maeda san, its unique half and half pattern being kept for novelty value.

There was actually a Koi like this at Momotaro on my earlier visits, a pet of Maeda san, its unique half and half pattern being kept for novelty value.

 


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It doesn't matter how good the pattern is behind the head this Kohaku would be rejected almost immediately because of the bozu (bald) pattern.

It doesn’t matter how good the pattern is behind the head this Kohaku would be rejected almost immediately because of the bozu (bald) pattern.

As soon as i became apparent that there was no pattern on the left of this Koi, as we look, it would go.

As soon as i became apparent that there was no pattern on the left of this Koi, as we look, it would go.

Menkaburi, in my experience, are all rejected at an early stage. If some white is visible on the head, perhaps around the eye or the nose then it may be kept.

Menkaburi, in my experience, are all rejected at an early stage. If some white is visible on the head, perhaps around the eye or the nose then it may be kept.

Straight ippon hi with no cuts into the red will always go. Even at a couple of centimetres the breeders are looking for a discernable pattern, the one below wouldn't be considered one.

Straight ippon hi with no cuts into the red will always go. Even at a couple of centimetres the breeders are looking for a discernable pattern, the one below wouldn’t be considered one.

By the shear fact that all of the above being rejected by breeders so early on and, with all displaying red and white in some pattern, we have to conclude that pattern is quite important, don’t we?

For the serious breeder of Kohaku anything resembling any of the above patterns has been rejected from the ‘tategoi’ by the time they are settled into the Koi house for winter aged around 4 months or so.

By September the breeders have already rejected 1000s if not 10s of 1000s of fry because they do not conform in terms of pattern standards however, at this time body shape and skin are a largely unknown quantity.  The challenge ahead is not about pattern it’s about developing the Koi in terms of size and retaining/developing its quality.

From this point we need to skip forward at least 6 months by which point the best tosai harvested in September have reached 30cm+ and are being sorted for the mud ponds or, alternatively missing the final grade and being offered for sale as tateshita.

At this point in time the breeder is considering the pattern to a lesser degree perhaps, now bone structure, body shape and skin quality are major factors in the breeders decision about how the Koi will develop.

So, to pull this all back together, how important is pattern….


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The breeders have had a massive influence over pattern, many non-conforming Koi have been rejected as their prime criteria by the age of 9 months, that’s a fact.  Were any red and white coloured Koi marketable as Kohaku then they’d be kept.  Essentially almost anything getting to market of a reasonable grade from a known breeder has a pattern somewhat conforming to standards.

When it comes to judging, given the above I can fully appreciate and accept that by that point body and skin become more significant, the hobbyist/grower has a direct influence on both.

So, presented with a pond full of Kohaku, and for the purposes of this discussion we’ll assume all are equal in terms of body shape and skin, which one should you choose?

The answer to that is fairly simple on the face of it, buy the one that appeals to you most, you are the one that’s going to have to look at it in your pond.  I personally feel the pattern has to attract before considering other aspects of the Koi, don’t just buy Koi because it has a show pattern, buy the pattern you like, rather more don’t reject a Koi because it doesn’t have a show pattern if you like it.

That’s all well and good but let’s consider that you are buying a Koi with a view to entering it into a Koi show, then selecting a suitable pattern is perhaps rather more complicated than just purchasing the pattern that you like.

I think that patterns, remember we are just concentrating on Kohaku now, can loosely be classified into 3 groups, standard/traditional, standard/traditional with a unique ‘twist’ and finally totally unique.


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Let me explain further my reasoning behind this and what each group means:

Standard/traditional – in this group I would place Kohaku with simple stepped patterns, nidan, sandan, yondan.  Each dan would be uncomplicated even rounded shapes, evenly spaced on the body. They would very much be text book examples, something like the example below.

Classic stepped pattern, in this case a 3 step, or sandan

Classic stepped pattern, in this case a 3 step, or sandan

Standard/traditional with a unique ‘twist’

Whilst this example  is a sandan pattern as it has 3 distinct steps it clearly has very unique elements to it, the maruten marking connected to the shoulder pattern making the 1st dan, the white cut into the 2nd dan by the dorsal.

Whilst this example is a sandan pattern as it has 3 distinct steps it clearly has very unique elements to it, the maruten marking connected to the shoulder pattern making the 1st dan, the white cut into the 2nd dan by the dorsal.

Totally unique

This Kohaku  is modeled on the 2002 ZNA All Japan Grand Champion owned by Masao Kato.  This was a Koi I fell in love with at first sight at the 2001 ZNA show where the Grand Champion, another famous Kohaku known as Sakurahime with it's fairly traditional sandan pattern left me somewhat underwhelmed as the first All Japan Grand Champion I'd seen in the flesh.  Another example would be Loulan, the first Koi to have won the All Japan Combined Nishikigoi Show on 2 occasions and a Koi which a number of breeders have stated to me as being the best Koi they've ever seen.

This Kohaku is modeled on the 2002 ZNA All Japan Grand Champion owned by Masao Kato.  This was a Koi I fell in love with at first sight at the 2001 ZNA show where the Grand Champion, another famous Kohaku known as Sakurahime with it’s fairly traditional sandan pattern left me somewhat underwhelmed as the first All Japan Grand Champion I’d seen in the flesh.  Another example would be Loulan, the first Koi to have won the All Japan Combined Nishikigoi Show on 2 occasions and a Koi which a number of breeders have stated to me as being the best Koi they’ve ever seen.

The significance of the ‘sandan’ pattern

The sandan, or 3 stepped, pattern is considered the ‘standard’ pattern in terms of desirability, why?  Well the Japanese like things arranged in groups of 3, this can be found in flower arranging, placement of stones in gardens and in the arrangement of types of bonsai.  To take that a step further the first dan should apparently be the 2nd largest, the main dan on the body the largest, finishing with the smallest dan at the tail.  Many a breeder has stated to me that the maruten sandan is the perfect pattern.  Whilst the above may be true it isn’t something that is particularly borne out by results of the major Koi shows in Japan.


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Categorising All Japan Combined Nishikigoi Grand Champions

The poster below shows the Grand Champions from the first 40 All Japan Shows, click to englarge it.

Poster showing 40 All Japan Grand Champions

Poster showing 40 All Japan Grand Champions

As you look through the images how many conform to what we are led to believe are ‘standards’ in terms of pattern?  Just 2 have what would be considered reasonably traditional stepped patterns.

What is obviously apparent is the number of Kohaku that have completely unique patterns and patterns, if we are led to believe the text book rules relating to red in the eyes, no tail stop, etc, are fundamentally flawed.

So which sort of pattern should you plump for?

As I’ve repeated many times, you should buy what you like.  If you are buying for a Koi show outside of Japan, and with non-Japanese judges, then you are safest with a Koi with a pattern that isn’t too unique.  I’ve read that judges don’t allow their personal tastes to affect their decisions.  I have no doubt that is the case at the highest level, i.e. they can’t allow pattern to override other criteria just because they like it.  However, when it comes down to 2 individual Koi with comparable skin, comparable bodies and the decision has to be made on pattern, both of which are comparable, which is the judge going to go for?  This isn’t to do with judges credibility, it’s just human nature.


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For me personally, show me a pond of Koi in the ‘standard/traditional’ group and I don’t care how good the body or skin is it’s just a boring Koi.  Show me a Koi with a great pattern, something with interest, something dynamic, something that is truly unique (without breaking fundamental rules) and it’s time to get excited.  Of course if it’s on a skinny body with flat skin then I accept it can’t cut it.

Occasionally, just occasionally, a Koi comes along that seems to have it all, uniquely interesting pattern, amazing skin, and a great body….

Grand Champion at the 2011 and 2013 All Japan Koi Show

Grand Champion at the 2011 and 2013 All Japan Koi Show

 


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