The History of judging koi
When did we first start to ‘judge koi’?? Well, one could say that koi were first ‘judged’ as worth or as a novelty when the first mutations appeared hundreds of years ago. One could say that the first time these fish were taken and preserved in holding ponds that they are been judges as worthy of special treatment beyond the dinner table!
But for our definition, I think we can say that koi were ‘judged’ once it was deemed an organized activity to gather specimens and rank them according to some criteria.
The very first judging criteria however were not those criteria we employ today! Indeed, beyond the details and elements we judge today, there was a fundamental difference of reason and philosophy. I divide these two branches of judging as follows:
1) The live stock judging criteria.
2) The practice of judging koi for beauty and for artistic purposes
The first judgings were appropriately enough, held at live stock or country fair type settings. And there, a fish was judged as a carp with coloring. It was judged for ‘soundness, health and color’. This was done on a strict point system in order to create a standard. It was also done so that unsound specimens were not bred into the population. Only ‘prize winning’ fish would be considered good breeding stock as most exhibitors back then were breeders of the fish. The Japanese agricultural festivals then, were the birth place of judges. Usually fellow hobbyist breeders and local officials were the invited judges.
Over time, these number systems of judging were able to produce defect free, technically correct colored and patterned fish but it was also observed that very special fish were being passed over as they didn’t score well yet they possessed elements that were far superior to all other fish entered?!
This was the moment when subjective points were allowed into the judging world. It was the beginning of a departure from the live stock judging experience and into the world of koi as living art.
This required entire modification in the way the Japanese looked at koi and was the beginning or modern standards as well as an emphasis on grade, size and key quality elements. This in turn unleashed the breeders to refine and redefine elements of koi beyond basic pattern considerations.
The ZNA judging core was the first to take over the roll of a judging organization ( some 50 years ago) as the hobbyist breeder became the true professional and issues of fairness and objectivity entered the show vat ring. Today, all the standards that the world uses come from this organization. And to this day, remains the largest and most prestigious with hundreds of working local judges, assistant judges and fully certified International judges.
As ZNA spread several other countries began their own versions of judging programs. Of note, the British system was the second most famous and America’s own AKCA became another well known domestic version of the ZNA judging program. Since all were working with the ZNA’s standards, the systems started off with the same focus and then local ‘flavor’ took over. The BKKS for instance, took the written word and detail of the standards to the ‘decimal point’ in terms of judging details. And the AKCA had the emphasis put on color and pattern.
Even today we can see ‘cultural variations’ in judging programs that influence the local populations in their emphasis on koi elements.
As ZNA students we continue to follow the evolved details of koi appreciation as developed some 90 years ago. In that approach and philosophy we learn to see the koi overall as a grade and combination of elements found in grade and with the age of the koi. The atmosphere of the koi as a variety and its accomplishment against the standard are very important. Finally the finish and condition of the koi are considered based on the beauty contest and the care the koi has been given in order to finish the koi’s body and color properly.
Our AKCA brethren are experts on knowing the koi’s variety and have been drilled extensively to seek out bright color and attractive pattern in koi and as such are natural students to then enter the more detailed and combined artistic/technical driven criteria of ZNA judging.
Perhaps the very best drilled and technical judges arise from the BKKS program. This is a serious program in which the technical adds up to the winner. Not everyone can succeed in this program but the ones that do are some of the best technicians in the world of koi judging.
To the exhibitor and candidate judge I would offer this advise, learn your varieties and understand that first in foremost in any and all judging programs I have named is the mandate that a koi must be sound- that is defect free. Second, once the body is sound, it must be a superior bodyline as a show fish. Work on understanding this first—forget pattern and color in order to gain the very first lesson. This lesson is at the heart of the entire history I have shared with you.