Koi story: priceless Japanese fish make a splash

Nishikigoi koi carp being bred for future contests at the Kurihara Fish Farm in Kazo, Saitama prefecture. (AFP)
Updated 07 January 2018

Koi story: priceless Japanese fish make a splash

KAZO: Hand-reared for their color and beauty, koi carp have become an iconic symbol of Japan that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even participate in fishy beauty contests.
The nation’s koi carp were brought to the world’s attention when visiting US President Donald Trump was snapped unceremoniously dumping the last of a box of feed into a palace pond in Tokyo.
But the fish have for decades been popular in Japan, where top breeders take their most prized specimens (known as “nishikigoi”) to highly competitive “beauty parades.”
At one such competition in Tokyo, judges in sharp suits, notebooks in hand, stride around tanks lined up along a pedestrian street where the valuable koi strut their stuff.
They come in all the colors of the rainbow: pearly white, bright red, cloudy-grey, dark blue, gleaming golden yellow.
But it is the curvature of the fish that accounts for 60 percent of the final score, explained competition organizer Isamu Hattori, who runs Japan’s main association for breeders of koi carp.
Color and contrast make up another 30 percent, he told AFP.
And the final 10 percent? “Hinkaku” — a concept that is tricky to define and even harder to judge, best translated as the “presence” or “aura” of the fish.
“’Hinkaku’. It’s either there in the genes at birth, or it’s not,” mused Mikinori Kurikara, a koi breeder in Saitama, north of Tokyo, who says he can spot it in fish when they reach eight or nine months old.
“Put it this way, it’s like looking after your own children every day. You care for your kids and want them to grow healthy. In the same way, you take care of these fish, appreciate them and adore them,” he told AFP.
At his farm, thousands of tiny “nishikigoi” (colored carp) dart around deep basins of carefully purified water, meticulously divided by age and color.
A less glorious fate awaits the other koi who have not been fortunate enough to catch the eye of the breeder: they are sold off as feed for tropical fish.
“It’s a really delicate job, really difficult. Everything matters: the ground, the water quality, the food,” explained the 48-year-old, who took over the farm from his father and is training his son, half his age, in the subtle arts of koi breeding.
“We have many secrets,” he adds mischievously. “But even if we let them slip, it wouldn’t work. You have to be able to feel it.”
These days, any self-respecting traditional Japanese garden has plenty of colorful koi gracing its ponds, but it is a relatively recent tradition.
Around 200 years ago, villagers in the mountainous region around Niigata (in the north-west of Japan) started to practice genetic engineering without knowing what they were doing.
For the first time, they began to cross-breed rare colorful carp, not for food but for pure aesthetical value.
The craze for nishikigoi gradually took over the whole of Japan and then spread into other parts of Asia.
They are especially popular in China, where carp swimming against the tide symbolizes the idea of perseverance leading to riches — rather like people climbing the social ladder, said Yutaka Suga, professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at Tokyo University.
Today, koi is big business and Japanese exports are booming — 90 percent of domestic production is exported and sold at auction.
In 2016, Japan exported a record 295 tons of koi carp, generating turnover of 3.5 billion yen ($31 million), an increase of almost 50 percent from 2007, according to Japan’s agriculture ministry.
As for individual carp, “the prices have become insane,” said carp association boss Hattori.
“Today, a two-year-old carp can sell for 30 million yen each ($265,000) whereas 10 years ago, two million yen was already a very good price,” he told AFP.
Like racehorse owners, many foreign owners leave their prized possessions in their home Japanese farms so they can compete in the most prestigious fishy pageants, which are only open to domestic rearers.
One such owner, Chinese koi collector Yuan Jiandong, was in Tokyo to cheer on some of his own carp.
“It’s not a way of making money. It’s a way of spending it for fun,” laughed the pharmaceutical boss from Shanghai.
But owning koi is so much more than a vulgar display of wealth, he said.
“When you see these beautiful fish gliding around in your pond, you forget the stresses of daily life and you find peace of mind.”
And you can’t put a price on that.

Musical truth: Palestinian singer Maysa Daw blends the personal with the political

Updated 18 September 2018

Musical truth: Palestinian singer Maysa Daw blends the personal with the political

  • Maysa Daw is a young Palestinian singer
  • A guitar-driven singer-songwriter, Daw is a bundle of indie energy

DUBAI: Maysa Daw is a hard person to pin down. The young Palestinian singer has been busy dashing from gig to gig, completing an album and preparing to participate in a musical collaboration called the Basel-Ramallah Project, which is due to take place in Switzerland on Oct. 6. When we meet, she is in Chicago, about to go on stage at Palipalooza.

“We’ve been working on our solo show and I’m trying to write a few new songs but time isn’t exactly on my side at the moment,” she said with a laugh. “But writing always comes in-between things, you know. I’m always having these new ideas and I write them down, or new melodies and I write them down. At some point I’ll just gather them together and a lot of things will come from there.”

A guitar-driven singer-songwriter, Daw is a bundle of indie energy. Her live performances are raw and honest, her music a primarily personal reaction to the world around her. As a Palestinian living inside the Green Line, this can sometimes mean a world of conflict and complication.

“I always write about what I’m experiencing, what I’m feeling, or the anger that I’m feeling,” said Daw, whose debut album “Between City Walls” was written while she was living in Jaffa.

“It was a very different world for me. I grew up in Haifa, which is a lot more chill, a lot more relaxed, and suddenly I move to Jaffa and study in Tel Aviv, and everything was so intense. Everything was so new. It produced a lot of stuff. Love songs, break-up songs — political songs, too.

“There’s also one of my favorite songs, “Crazy.” I was so frustrated when I started writing this song. I was thinking of so many things at the time and I just wrote everything down. It’s exactly the way I was feeling, the things that I was asking myself. It talks about religion, it talks about death, it talks about politics — it talks about a lot of things.”

“Between City Walls,” which was released in June last year, may be indie in its sensibilities but its eight songs embrace a variety of sounds, not all of which are musical. Alongside samples of classical Arabic songs and Spanish guitar there are bursts of radio static and live voice recordings of people in the West Bank. As such, reproducing the album on stage, with drummer Issa Khoury and bassist Shadi Awidat, has not been easy.

“We’ve been trying to put material for a five-piece band into a three-piece band,” said Daw. “As such, we’ve been using more electronics and it’s been a very interesting challenge for us. But it’s got us to a place that I’m definitely very happy with.”

Daw is very much a product of Haifa. Born into an artistic family — her father is the actor Salim Dau — she immersed herself in the city’s independent Arabic-music scene, performing at venues such as Kabareet and collaborating with Ministry of Dub-Key, a Galilean group that fuses the sounds of hip-hop and dancehall with traditional Palestinian dabke.

She also recently finished recording an album with Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, who she joined about five years ago. Due to be released early next year, the as-yet-untitled album is her first full-length collaboration with the group. Prior to this, Daw and DAM recorded two tracks together, including the feminism-infused “Who You Are.”

Although Daw’s work gravitates toward the personal, much of it also can be viewed as intrinsically political. The song “Come with Me,” for example, is about two lovers kept apart by the separation wall, while “Radio” features the voices of refugees living in the West Bank. In snippets of their conversations you can hear them talking about the wall, the effects it has on their lives and their desire to tear it down.

“I do talk about politics but only because it’s a big part of my life, whether I want it to be or not. And believe me, I don’t,” she said. “But it is a part of my life.

“I started loving music way before I even understood what politics is. I only wanted to make music but with time I understood more about the responsibility that I could accept to have.”

She paused and corrected herself: “Not exactly a responsibility but a sort of a privilege. I have this voice that I can use and it has the potential to reach a lot of people. It made me realize that I can use this to talk about things that many other people can’t talk about.”

Daw once said that despite the perceived mundanity of everyday events, “everything we do here as Arabs is connected to politics.” As such, there is a vein of resistance running through much of her work. She sings of love under occupation, equality, society and religion, with freedom the ultimate objective.

“A lot of the time I write for the purpose of trying to tell somebody something, or trying to express my opinion about something,” she said. “And sometimes I just feel this thing that’s blocking me, that I need to release in any way, and my way of releasing it is through music.

“Sometimes I release something just for myself. I write it, I turn it into a song and I don’t release it to the world, because sometimes some things are too private. I still do it, I still work on a song and I still do it in a way that I absolutely love the song, yet it will never be heard by anybody else.”

One song on her debut album is sung in English, titled “Live Free.”

“You know, when I started making music and writing my own songs I started writing in English,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing it in Arabic. And at some point I realized that it was a little bit strange for me, because the whole personality of a person changes when you change language.

“I wanted to start writing in Arabic to see what it would bring, and it brought a very new side of me that I didn’t know. Everything was different: the melodies, the type of words I used, how I built sentences — something just clicked. Arabic feels a lot more like home when writing music.”