From Pond to Prosperity: The Symbolic Essence of Japanese Koi Fish

by Nana Young

There are several ways to interpret the koi fish meaning in Japanese culture, and we’re about to reveal them all. The creature is one of Japan’s most iconic identities, thanks to its famous symbolism, historical significance, and captivating folklore. Join us as we unpack the true meaning of the Japanese koi fish. 


serene symbolic meaning beauty of Koi fish in the Lotus Pond, cultural significance

Koi fish or nishikigoi, is a colored species of carp that is mainly used for ornamental purposes. You can find it gracing garden ponds in Japanese households thanks to its large size, vibrant colors, and long life. But there’s a lot more to the creature than natural decoration.

In Japan, koi fish has roots in traditional symbolism. Depending on the context, koi symbolize love, bravery, courage, perseverance, and many more traits or values. Their imagery and symbols are used as decoration, art, or even tattoos.

The koi fish’s abstract benefits far outweigh its culinary use. However, that wasn’t always the case. In the past, Japanese carp were nothing but local food raised in households with the aim of diversifying the owners’ diet. At the time, there wasn’t much to look at because the fish had dark colors. However, unexpected mutations and selective breeding in the 19th century birthed the multi-colored, beautiful koi fish we know and love today.

The koi fish serves as both an inspiration and a reminder of what we can achieve if we set our minds to it. Its symbolism is often depicted in Japanese literature, art, and folklore. 

What Are Koi Fish? 

Koi fish black background, unique fish with many symbolic meanings

The Japanese word “koi” is the informal name given to the colored variant of the common carp. Physically, the koi carp is a large fish with shiny and colored skin that makes it easy to spot in the water. The prominent barbels visible near its mouth are the distinguishing factor between it and a goldfish. Examples of koi breeds are Butterfly Koi, Shōwa, Kōhaku, Asagi, Shusui, and Goshiki.

Thanks to the impact of selective breeding, there is no limit to the koi fish’s spectrum of colors and patterns. Most koi fish have tri-colored skin, which is typically a combination of white, red, and black. Other common colors are yellow, orange, blue, and silver. Koi fish can also have single-colored, bi-colored, or multi-colored skin. The patterns on their skin may range from random to perfectly symmetric. 

Domestication of the common carp began in 4th-century China. However, Japanese koi would only appear in the 19th century, when rice farmers bred carp into colorful variants. Today, the koi fish is one of the most popular ornamental fish in the world, only rivaled by the goldfish. Some of the highest-show-quality koi sell for incredible sums, with the most expensive one in the world going for $1.9 million.

The Historical Significance of Koi Fish in Japan

River pond decorative orange underwater fishes nishikigoi admired around the world

The history of the Japanese koi fish didn’t start in Japan, but in China. In the 4th century, the people of China domesticated different types of carp to be used as food. However, the natural resilience of these domesticated carps allowed them to survive, migrate, and propagate into new locations, including Japan.

Most of the carps that appeared in Japan were single-colored as a result of natural mutation. Red, blue, yellow, and white carps were the most common versions at the time. The artificial ornamental breeding of carp wouldn’t start in Japan until the 1820s. This breeding began in Nijūmuragō, an area in Niigata Prefecture. The koi breeding industry in that region flourished because it helped raise emergency food for winter and served as a lucrative “hobby” for farmers in the region. As the decades rolled by, newer breeds of koi were created, bought, sold, and replicated.

Today, koi fish are available worldwide as pets, decorations, and cultural icons. People collect them as a hobby or to bring life to their environment. They’re also known for their deep symbolic meanings, which we’ll discuss later in this post. You can buy koi fish at aquarium shops, pet stores, or from special dealers.

Koi Fish Symbolism: More Than Just Ornamental

Two Japanese national fish (Koi fish) swimming

Koi fish are undoubtedly beautiful to look at. But there’s a lot more to them than their beauty. The creature is a treasure trove of symbolism in various Asian countries, especially Japan, where koi fish symbolize perseverance, good fortune, strength, and ambition. It sends a hopeful message of endurance when faced with adversity, prompting us to do our best to overcome life’s obstacles and achieve success. So, if you see someone with a koi fish tattoo, you shouldn’t assume that it’s an image of their favorite pet.

This symbolism draws inspiration from the koi fish’s ability to swim upstream against the forces of the waterfall. There’s a Japanese legend to back this up. In it, the koi swims against the downstream currents of a river until it emerges at the top, only to turn into a colorful dragon. There are different versions of the legend across the Asian continent. 

The Legend of the Koi Fish and the Dragon Gate

a koi fish swimming in a pond, Japanese carp

A big part of modern and ancient koi fish symbolism comes from a Chinese folklore known as “The Legend of the Dragon Gate” or simply “The Legend of Koi.”

According to the famous Chinese legend, a school of golden koi fish decided to embark on a journey to the “Dragon Gate.” To get there, they would have to swim upstream of the Yellow River, which would be an extremely difficult feat. However, the low odds did not deter the koi, and they swam up the river and against the strong currents.

They grew stronger as they battled the waves on their way. All of the fish made it to the river’s end but were distraught to find a waterfall between them and the Dragon Gate. Some members of the group gave up and swam away, but the bravest ones stayed. They tried to leap to the top but rushing waters proved a challenging obstacle. One by one, the koi began to give up and swim away. This continued for hundreds of years until only one koi fish was left. It persevered until he finally made it to the Dragon Gate. The gods rewarded the successful fish by transforming it into a beautiful golden dragon.

Koi Fish in Garden Design: Creating Tranquil Spaces

Japanese style garden with koi fish pond, freshwater fish

A koi pond is a special kind of pond used to hold colored carp in a traditional Japanese garden. It promotes the health and growth of the colorful fish, and is integral to the garden’s design and functionality. These ponds add living elements to the gardens. The vibrant colors of the fish swimming around in the pond improve the aesthetics of the garden. They also create a tranquil atmosphere that helps with meditation, which is one of the main uses of a Japanese garden. A typical Koi pond is made up of several components, including drains, filters, UV lights, and pumps.

Koi Fish and Their Role in Festivals

Mount Fuji and carp streamer,  red patterned koi

Due to their deep connections with Japanese traditions, koi fish represent important festive elements in the country. They play a major role in Kodomo no Hi (Japanese Children’s Day) celebrations. On May 5, every year, families take out the Koinobori or “koi streamer,” and fly above their homes. The Koinobori is a windsock that’s designed to look like a koi fish. The flying koi fish is a major Children’s Day tradition in Japan, symbolizing courage, determination, and hope for the future of the kids. The koi also appears as the Koi Yama float in the Gion Festival of July. This float refers to a Japanese version of the legend of the koi, who swam upstream and transformed into a dragon.

The Global Appeal of Koi Fish

several koi fish in a pond, gold koi in the center, carp fish

Koi fish, symbolism, and art have crossed borders and gained a global following. People all over the world recognize it as the universal symbol for peace and tranquility. Enthusiasts and casual followers of Japanese and Chinese culture engage with it through art, fashion, literature, and tattoos. In Western countries, people get koi tattoos to symbolize their strength and perseverance or to ensure their good fortune.

Koi Fish in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

Koi carp seen from above in a clear pond with some water lilies

The koi fish is associated with different myths and folklore in Japanese culture. The most notable one is the legend of the koi transforming into a dragon. However, many versions of the tale don’t include details of how the koi was able to get to the top of the waterfall. In more detailed stories, it dived down to the bottom of the river and, from there, built up enough momentum to scale the waterfall and reach its goal. This was a great display of cunning, strength, and perseverance by the legendary koi.

Koi fish are also associated with samurai myths and legends. They’re said to have superior strength, just like the Samurai. Their strength and endurance allow them to swim against the strongest of currents. Even more legends depict koi fish as symbols of love and affection who swim in pairs.

Koi as a Status Symbol in Modern Japan

Beautiful view of Japanese Carp fish & colorful maple leaves in a lovely Koi pond in a courtyard garden in Kyoto, Japan

Owning koi fish in the Edo Period (1603–1868)  was a status symbol because it meant that you were either nobility or a very wealthy person. Fast forward to over 100 years into the future and not much has changed in that aspect. Owning and breeding koi is a status symbol in contemporary Japanese society, reflecting wealth, aesthetic sense, and a connection to cultural heritage.

People all over the world participate in koi competitions, where they showcase the stunning colors, physical conformation, and unique patterns of their fish. Raising a prize-winning koi is an honorable achievement in Asian cultures. Your koi will also have a massive boost in its resale value at both local and international koi markets.


Japanese wallpaper pattern design of elegant koi fish crap with watercolor texture

We can always trust the koi fish to remind us of the value of perseverance, strength, and bravery in life. Every show-quality koi you see today must have survived a meticulous selection process. Hence, it is one of the most beautiful fish out of thousands of offspring. We hope that you appreciate these living symbols of nature’s beauty and resilience every chance you get.

Just like the perfectionist koi breeder, Bokksu only selects the best products from Japan. Get a Bokksu Snack Box subscription today and we’ll send you our meticulously curated box of snacks and sweets every month.

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