Showa, the Embodiment of Power by Bob Brudd

Reprinted with permission from Water Gardening Magazine


Traditional Showa – The original style showas were predominantly red and black fish with
only 20 – 30% white coloring.

Kindai Showa – In the 1970’s, the tastes of the showa buying public shifted towards a koi with
more white ground showing.

Motoguro (moe – toe – gurrr – oh) Concentrations of black coloring at the base of a showa’s
pectoral fins.

Menware (Men – wahr – ray) Lightning-like sumi pattern on the head.

Hachiware (Hah – chee – wahr – ray) Another word describing lightning-like sumi on the head.

Aizumi (Aye – zoo – mee) Ai describes the blue that we refer to as indigo. When combined with
another word, the “s” in sumi is replaced by a “z” sound.

It is only fitting that of all the gosanke, or “big three,” we save the showa for last since it was the last of the three major varieties to be developed. Formally known as the showa sanshoku, this black, red and white koi serves as the representative for the Showa Era of Japanese history which spanned the years 1927 to 1989. This sixty year period also witnessed the growth of koi keeping from an esoteric hobby isolated in the mountains of Niigata to the national passion that rapidly evolved during the bubble economy of the 80’s. It was during this same period that the desire to keep koi spread to Europe, the United States and other countries in Asia.

The first showa was created in 1927 by when a breeder named Hoshino crossed a ki utsuri, which is a yellow fish with black bandings, and a kohaku. Because of the influence of the yellow coloring, neither the reds or the whites of these early showa were very attractive. Another problem was that the sumi inherited from the ki utsuri line had a tendency to be somewhat dull and lackluster. Finally, in the early 1960’s, Tomiji Kobayashi crossed his showas with a kohaku bloodline that had a strong red. The resulting “Kobayashi showa” line was a big improvement, but size and body shape were still a problem.

Other breeders continued to improve the variety which culminated in the creation of the most famous showa of all: the inazuma (lightning pattern) showa. This incredible koi was bred by the famous breeder, Minoru Mano, founder of the Dainichi Koi Farm. The inazuma showa represented a huge improvement in body conformation and overall color quality, and it was used as a brood fish until it died a few years ago.

So what makes a showa a showa? And what do you look for when purchasing one for your collection? The first question is easy to answer; however, the second is much more difficult. Starting with the easy part, it’s best to think of a showa as a black based fish with red and white markings. Unlike the sanke, which has smallish sumi markings, a showa has large blocks of black coloring that often wrap the body below the lateral line.

A showa should also have black on the face (preferably the nose), and in an ideal world, all three colors should be present in this area. In a really, really, really ideal world, the arrangement of the three colors on the face is mirrored in reverse at the other end of the koi. Ergo, if the tip of the face is white, followed by red and then black, then the rear portion of the fish’s body should be black, followed by red and finally white.

Breeders of showa try very hard to create koi that have a sumi mark on the head that resembles a diagonal band of lightning. This trait is referred to as hachiware or menware, and this characteristic helps give a showa its imposing appearance. Another trait that adds to this image of power is motoguro, the presence of black at the base of each pectoral fin. It is preferable that these black markings not go as far as the edge of the fins and that they be surrounded by white on all three sides. A good quality showa, particularly one that represents the more traditional school, should invoke thoughts of a powerful middle line backer in full pads and helmet. Think Dick Butkus with pads.

One of the challenges to buying a good showa is that it can take many years for complete development of the sumi to take place. For this reason, serious hobbyists will only buy a showa when it’s at least three years old; however, this also makes the fish more expensive. Even then it can take additional years for the sumi of a showa to evolve and mature. This can either be fascinating or frustrating, depending on your patience, your pocketbook and your point of view. On the other hand, if you don’t have deep pockets and you just want to have fun, you should be able to buy an interesting one year old showa “with prospects” for a reasonable fee of $75 to $150 and up.

Assuming that it’s an imported koi, the odds are that it will be a male, but it’s possible that you might get lucky and end up with a female. Remember that female koi grow up to have better body conformation than males, which have a tendency to be thin. Also keep in mind that many, many attempts have been made to improve the genetics of showa in order to make them bigger and fuller with better quality black, whiter whites and redder reds. This sometimes results in showas with weak genetics and imperfections that end up in your koi vendor’s vat. Watch out for a head that is pointed or too small for the fish’s body. Look extra carefully if the head has a lot of sumi because black can hide flaws. Check the pectoral fins and make sure that they are both the same size and proportional to the body – sometimes, the pectorals can be too small or even deformed.

One last deficiency that can occur in showas is a divot or depression in the body of the fish right behind the head plate. These depressions can occasionally be found on one or both sides of the koi and they can be made harder to see if there’s black on the shoulder. As every fashion conscious dresser knows, black can hide a multitude of problems. To check for this flaw, look at the fish from the side and position yourself directly over the head/shoulder. Next, as you focus on the shoulder farthest away from you, lower your head closer to the koi while moving away from it at the same time. This allows you to observe the shoulder from different angles and in different light as your head moves. If the head plate transitions into the body at each shoulder without any dips or depressions, then the problem doesn’t exist in your koi.

Finally, as with any patterned fish, balance is important. Since we look at the head and shoulders of a fish first, we can easily ignore the back half of a koi, particularly since it’s smaller and narrower. To remedy this tendency, try an old trick. When the koi is facing you, hold one hand in front of you and cover up the back half of the fish. Then, do the reverse and cover up the front half. Check the balance and distribution of colors and pattern. If the sumi isn’t too pronounced, check to see if the fish has a good kohaku pattern. Odds are that in many cases, your fish won’t balance out.

Many beautiful front heavy fish get culled in Japan and sent to foreign markets because of this imbalance. Why? Because even though the fish may be of excellent quality, they will become more unbalanced looking as they get older and bigger. Whereas this is detrimental for a competition-level koi, it may be of no consequence to the casual backyard ponder or water gardener. Again, it’s all about learning, regardless of what niche of ponding you fall into.

Watching your showa develope and change is one of the most fascinating aspects of keeping koi. Enjoy!

©2004 all rights reserved to Bob Brudd and Water Gardening Magazine