March 23, 2017
In Japan, the lowly carp is king. Koi (鯉), a subspecies of the common carp, emerged in the early 19th century. Rather the same way kennel clubs became all the rage during the Victorian era, koi ponds stocked with ornamental breeds of domesticated carp became a mark of upper-class refinement, like a well-groomed poodle.
The goldfish, now considered its own species separate from carp, actually has a longer lineage, having arrived in Japan from China three centuries earlier. In the 16th century, goldfish were also introduced to Europe from China via Portugal, but didn't arrive in the U.S. until the mid-1800s.
For the Edo period samurai, breeding goldfish was the aristocratic thing to do. A contemporaneous comparison might be the tulip mania that gripped Holland in the early 1600s (minus the bubble economics). The koi pond in Japanese historical dramas is a bit anachronistic; the fish in those ponds likely would have been goldfish.
As with flowers and dogs and cats, the breeding of exotic goldfish still has its devotees.
But the common goldfish, a direct descendant of the Prussian carp, is thriving as well. And not just those that fend for themselves after being tossed into the nearest river or lake, or survive the gauntlet of the municipal sewer system.
Japan's fondness for fish is not confined to looking at them, but catching and eating them in great quantities. Goldfish don't generally fall into the edible category (your cat might beg to differ), but they can be caught. This brings us to a truly odd carnival "sport": "goldfish scooping" (kingyo sukui).
The definition is pretty much literal. The goal is to scoop a goldfish into a bowl with a tiny paper net before it dissolves. The "sport" goes back at least two centuries (and, yes, there are competitions). Here's an expert at work.
Carnivals often set up shop at shrines as fund-raising activities, and kingyo sukui is associated with the summer festival season. (For those concerned about the welfare of the goldfish, small floating plastic toys can be used instead.)