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The very cult of the Koi Fish is derived from the Japanese love of the Kohaku.

Kohaku was the very first variety to become established in the 19th century and has remained the Japanese favorite ever since. It is a white Koi where red appears in varying patterns, and each of these patterns has its own name. The different patterns of the Kohaku may be delicate and flowery (komoyo), or bold and imposing (omoyo). In either instance, qualtiy Kohaku, particularly when large, convey the impression of quiet and graceful elegance. A really outstanding Kohaku is rarely seen because most will fall short on one point of detail or another, so when viewing Kohaku in your dealers tank do not expect to find a perfect specimen.

The Japanese have been breeding this variety for more than 100 years, which time it has improved almost beyond recognition. It is one of only two types of Koi (the other is Sanke) with traceable bloodlines, though pedigree is only one consideration among many when choosing Kohaku. At best it is a pointer, never a cast-iron guarantee, as to how a fish may develop. It is short-sighted to purchase only from breeders currently in the public eye-to do so is to miss out on some potential gems from lesser-known farms.

The desirable elements in a top class Kohaku are good body shape, skin quality and pattern. Of these, only skin quality is immediately apparent in young fish, beginners tend to confuse this with color, which is quite another concept.

High quality skin is difficult to describe, but unmistakable once seen. Luster, depth, clarity and purity are all relevant attributes. Good white skin carries a blemish free sheen, as though the fish had been given several coats of silk emulsion paint.

Body shape changes as the Koi grows. Young fish of both sexes are slim, but pointers to a Kohaku that will attain good volume in later life are a thick caudal peduncle (wrist of the tail) and broad shoulders. As to size, you cannot expect the Koi to grow large unless it comes from large parent stock, this is where known bloodline comes into play.

Pattern is what gives every Kohaku its unique character. The Japanese once laid down strict formal guidelines as to where the hi should be positioned on the white skin, and fish that fell outside these parameters were not highly valued. Today's attitude is far more relaxed, although the step classification is still used for convenience - Nidan (two step), Sandan (three step), Yondan (four step) and Godan (five step). A "step" is a stand alone patch of hi anywhere on the head or body of the fish, but single, random red scales do not qualify.

These 6 points are the Basics of a Kohaku Koi Fish:
  • The Hi (red) markings should be bright and even over all the body. The red may be dark or light.
  • The edges of the Hi should be sharp and well defined and not gradually changing from Hi to white. The Hi is never quite as sharply defined on the top of the body as it is on the rear part of the body, but it must still be to a very good standard.
  • The Hi should not spread over the eyes or into the fins, but it can reach the eyes. But some of the winning Koi in Japan have had these markings, standards do fluctuate depending on the other merits of the Japanese Koi Fish.
  • The Hi should not extend down past the lateral line. But in the west it is popular for the Hi to wrap the body. These Japanese Koi Fish also make better aquarium exhibits when young, for then the color can be seen from the side and not just above as in a pond.
  • The Hi on the head should not spread below the nostrils nor should it be on the tail. You will find that many Koi have red over the nostrils and on the lips, but these are not valued in Japan.
  • There must be Hi on the head. Any Japanese Koi Fish with no Hi on their head is of no value in Japan, regardless of how well it may otherwise be marked.


Kohaku hi originates on the back of the fish and extends down over the flanks, as opposed to the "wrapping" type of pattern seen in Showa, which can encircle the abdomen. When choosing Kohaku, it is important to understand that blocks of hi may break. A young fish whose pattern resembles that of an accomplished adult may not have enough hi to see it through later life as its skin stretches, whereas a youngster with apparently overheavy hi is more likely to grow into itself as areas of hi separate away from one another.

Hi extending below the lateral line is not a fault, but it is better if it does not intrude into any of the fins. Ideally, in all Kohaku there should be an area of white separating the caudal peduncle from the hindmost hi step (ojime). A tail region lacking any hi is a worse fault, as it unbalances the Koi's overall appearance. Watch out, too, for pale and unstable secondary hi (nibani), a mark of poor quality fish, or pale windows, which may indicate that the Kohaku is in the process of losing its hi altogether.

Provided it forms an interesting pattern, unbroken hi running from the head towards the tail is quite acceptable. The best example is the Inazuma (lightning strike), where the red traces a more or less zigzag path across the back. However, Ippon hi (unrelieved hi all over the back and flanks) is not the mark of a good Kohaku and fish like this are usually culled early in life. Other non-starters in Kohaku broods are Shiro Muji (all white Koi) and their opposite numbers, the all-red Aka Muji.

Head hi takes many forms. The ideal used to be a bold U-shape, centrally placed and extending level with the eyes, but never running into them. Now, though, the trend is towards Kohaku that break the rules in a novel way. As long as the ehad pattern is interesting and complements the body hi, almost anything goes.

Red lips are know as Kuchibeni (lipstick). They can counterpoint head hi that might otherwise seem uninteresting or sparse.

A fish with stand along head hi (quite separate from that on the body) is known as a Maruten Kohaku. This marking counts as a step pattern.

Hi is always more clear cut on the scaleless head than elsewhere on the fish. Sashi (where white scales overlay hi at the front end of pattern) is never as clear cut as Kiwa (where red scales overlay white), but should be as sharp as possible. The hi of mature Koi should be strong enough to disguise individual scales, but thin hi (kokesuke) will often deepen with age in Kohaku of good bloodline.


Red and white Koi first appeared in Japan between 1804 and 1829, when the offspring of a black carp was found to have red cheeks. She was called Hookazuki and her white offspring were bred with a Higoi, a red fish, to produce Koi with red stomachs. By 1829, a Koi with red gill plates called Hoo Aka had been produced, and between 1830 and 1849 several different patterns appeared, including Zukinkaburi (red forehead), Menkaburi (red head), Kuchibeni (red lips) and Sarasa (red spots on the back).

The breeding of Kohaku continued and varieties were improved, especially in the Niigata region, now considered the birthplace of koi-keeping. In about 1888, a gentleman called Gosuke bought a Hachi Hi, a red-headed female, and bred it with his Sukura Kana, a cherry blossom patterned male. It is believed that the modern Kohaku was developed from the offspring of these Koi.

Doitsu, Gin-Rin, Metallic and other Kohaku

Doitsu Kohaku lack overall scaling. They make attractive, clear-cut pond fish, but in shows without a separate Doitsu class, all other attributes being equal, they will always lose out to fully scaled fish.

Gin-Rin Kohaku, with an abundance of reflective scales, join the other Go Sanke (Sanke and Showa) in their own judging class, Kin-Gin-Rin.

Metallic Kohaku (or Sakura Ogon) are judged in Hikarimoyo. So called "Kanoko Hohaku" have dappled hi made up of clearly defined individual red scales. These fish often lose all their hi later in life, but where it is stable they are judged in Kawarimono.

Resources: Koi Color Varieties by: Nick Fletcher

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