The Language of Koi by Bob Brudd

Reprinted with permission from Water Gardening Magazine

I know that I’m dating myself here, but when I was back in the first grade, our teacher taught us the basics of reading using a series of primers that told the simple saga of Dick, Jane and a dog named Spot. Many years later when I was taking education courses I learned that the purpose of every primer is to introduce young learners to the Dolch 220 basic sight words. It is essential that these words be learned by rote, not only because they make up a sizable percentage of all print matter, but because they serve as the building blocks that enable us to decipher the rest of the printed word.

The same can be said about the language of koi, namely that it is essential to learn some basic vocabulary words and concepts before moving on to more advanced terminology.

The lingua franca of koi is Japanese in origin, and although that in itself would seem to be intimidating, it really doesn’t have to be. Luckily, the phonetics of Japanese is relatively simple and repeatable. If you ever studied Spanish in school, you know that the each of the vowels has only one pronunciation. Therefore, with a few minutes of practice, anyone can do a passable job of reading Spanish aloud in an understandable manner. You may not understand anything you’re saying, but the point is that it sounds pretty much like Spanish.

Japanese is very much this way as well, so with a little work on your part, you too can sound like a koi veteran in no time. If you decide to get serious about learning these terms, make yourself some flash cards with the words you’re trying to learn on one side and definitions on the other. It works for me.

Pronunciation Guide

In Japanese, our letter “i” is pronounced “ee”
In Japanese, our letter “a” is pronounced “ah”
In Japanese, our letter “e” is pronounced “eh” as in Ed
In Japanese, our letter “u” is pronounced “oo” as in cool or book
In Japanese, our letter “o” is pronounced “oh”

General Fish Terms

It is important to be able to count to five in Japanese when learning to talk the talk of koi. An amazing number of terms utilize these five words so it will be useful to commit them to memory.

Ichi (ee-chee) – One. A breeder often refers to his best fish as “ichiban,” which means number one.

Ni (nee) – Two. A two year old koi is called a nisai (nee-sigh). A one year old, by the way, is called
a tosai (toe-sigh). I don’t know why it isn’t an ichisai.

San (sahn) – Three. Yep, a sansai is a three year old fish.

Yon (yohn) – Four. Yes, yonsai refers to a four year old.

Go (go) – Five. You can figure this one out all by yourself.


When you consider that wild Japanese carp were either dark brown or deep blue, the multi-colored varieties of koifish that we all enjoy today represent a miracle of genetic mutation and remarkable breeding skills.

Shiro (sheer – oh) – This is the Japanese word for white, and because it acts as the canvas for so many varieties of koi, it is impossible to overstate its importance. When you buy koi that
has shiroji (white ground), the quality of the white sets the standard for all the other
colors, especially reds and blacks. The very best koi have a quality comparable to
to the color of milk.

Hi (hee) – This is a general term for red and probably the most commonly used.

Aka (ah – kah) – Another general term for red.

Beni (beh – knee) – This is a term that not only denotes red, but infers good quality. Toshio Sakai, a great modern breeder, tells students of koi that to identify good beni, one should look at the
red of a fish in the same way you’d look at a paint job on a custom car. The more
coats of paint, the more depth. More depth equates to better beni.

Sumi (soo – mee) – This is the Japanese word for ink. Keep in mind that for thousands of years the people of Asia have ground their own ink and mixed it with water for the purpose of writing
or creating sumi-e (ink paintings). When you buy fish with sumi, you want the black
to have great depth and gloss similar to that of a pool of ink. When combined with
another word, e.g. katazumi, the initial consonant “s” often changes to a “z.”

Ki (kee) – Yellow, as in kigoi.

Midori (mee – dohr – ee) – Green.

Ai (aye) – Indigo blue. This is a blue that is exceptionally dark. There is one type of sumi, for example, that is referred to as ai-zumi because it has a bluish quality to it.

Sora (soh – ruh) – Sky. A soragoi is a koi with a bluish gray color.

Body Parts

As you read various books and magazines about koi, you’ll encounter terms that describe varying aspects of a fish’s body parts.

Kuchi (koo – chee)- Lips. The term kuchibeni, for example, refers to a fish with red lips or “lipstick.”

Te (the) – In Japanese, this word means hand, as in karate. On a koi it refers to the fish’s pectoral fins, which are used in a hand-like manner for fine maneuvering.

Hana (hah – nah) – Nose. Hanabeni or hanazumi describes a red or black marking, often dot shaped, found on the tip of a koi’s nose.

Men (men) – Face. When we eventually get to an article about the showa variety of koi, we’ll spend more time discussing this feature of a koi’s anatomy.

Kata (kah – tah)Shoulder. When buying koi of the sanke variety, it’s important to look for katazumi, which is a black marking on the shoulder of the fish. The shoulder is the area directly behind the head and above the pectorals (te).

Ozutsu (oh – zoot -sue) Tail tube. As you look at a mature koi from front to rear you’ll notice that the fish is widest at the shoulder. As you move your eye towards the rear, the fish tapers down and narrows until it reaches the tail fin itself. In good quality fish it is important that the last few inches of the fish’s body, the ozutsu, be thick and well developed because it reflects strength and power.

Our next three articles will deal with kohaku, showa and sanke. In Japan this group of koi is referred to as gosanke, which means “big three.” Between now and then, I hope that you study your new vocabulary terms so that we can continue to build on them and become ever more fluent in the language of koi.

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