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Conformation and Body Shape

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  • Conformation and Body Shape

    An article in the latest electronic Rinko has me thinking once more about the different body shapes to be found among koi and the concept of "conformation". The term "conformation" encompasses several ideas, and is frequently discussed in broad terms. As in so much of koi appreciation, specifics are difficult to express. Implicit in "conformation" is the idea that a koi should possess all of its body parts. No fin rays should be missing, for example. "Conformation" also includes the idea that no body part be malformed. A bent dorsal fin is not desirable. There is also the idea of symetry. The paired fins should be of equal size; the eyes should be evenly set. The concept of "conformation" also includes the idea that there should proper proportions in the size of the various body parts in relation to one another. From this latter sense of the concept comes the notion that there is an ideal body shape. But is there a single ideal body shape? Or, are there multiple ideal shapes, and are there certain shapes best suited to particular varieties and different shapes ideal for another variety?

    There are innumerable body shapes to be found among koi. In a thread on another board several weeks ago, JR pointed out that Nishikigoi have been developed from the crossing of several different strains of the common carp. We know that nishikigoi were developed from carp raised for food. Japanese texts highlight that well after irogoi (colored carp) were developed, the genes of local area magoi and magoi derivatives were introduced into the gene pool that became nishikigoi. The importation of the scaleless German carp, with its exaggerated bulk, compressed body and high dorsal ridge, added to the genetic mix. Today's koi carry this diverse genetic mix, and it is expressed in numerous culls every season. There is a multi-branched continuum of body shapes, each blurring into another. Some are unacceptable by the standards of the day, but there are several that are "acceptable" and seen everyday.

    Within the range of "acceptable" shapes, I categorize four as primary among the koi we keep. First is the torpedo shape seen in contemporary Kohaku. Second is the broad-chested/large head of older lines of Showa. Third is the "big all over" shape of Chagoi, with thickened muscle and tissue rounding the area between the spine and lateral line. Fourth is the modern magoi-influenced body shape seen in Matsunosuke bloodline koi. A person may categorize intermediates between these as additional types, but I think these four serve my present purpose.

    [To be continued. Dinner calls.]
    Last edited by MikeM; 06-17-2006, 07:49 PM. Reason: correct typo
  • #2

    Mike, I think you are confusing the judging concept of conformation against a standard and the Japanese breeders concept of 'body', with is purely a live stock/soundness consideration? You have to be careful that you are within the context of the speaker/interviewee. If it is a ZNA judge, you are talking about defects vs. deformities (Kesson and Ketson) and an ideal shape (including artist elements of grace, imposing appearance etc). Not the same, necessarily, for a breeder's eye.

    Yet ironically, the two worlds, balance one another. The breeder culls the defects and deformities through out right extermination and then, via sales. The judge re-enforces standards and eliminates from competition the ones sold that are not worthy of the ideal or even a ranking.



    • #3

      Excellent point, JR. You're right. I'm blurring a couple of independent ideas. [Ahh, so much for the chardonnay. It really is time for dinner.]


      • #4

        Another good one Mike.

        James, you lost me. Could you please rephrase that so maybe I can understand.

        Tancho. Is it my imagination, or do many tancho tend to have a shorter and more pointed head? Nothing definitive, just a tendency in that direction? It may be an optical illusion.

        -steve hop


        • #5


          I presume you mean Tancho, as opposed to Tancho Sanke or Tancho Showa? I have seen pattern over or understate body shape. This seems to be less of an issue in tancho sanke/showa where pattern seems to enhance body shape. To my eye Tacho ("kohaku") look smaller in the head. I do think it is an illusion. I see pattern as giving body shape a border and definition.



          • #6

            Morning Steve,

            Sure. To begin at the beginning---

            A breeder is the Artist and the koi judge is the critic.

            A breeder is ruled by soundness of the creation, hopefully health above fashion and in the case of the Japanese breeder, the image of a carp- strong, powerful and enduring. As you know, the carp is a very meaningful creature in myth and symbolism. So a nishikigoi is meant to be first and foremost a carp. A fancy colorful version, but a carp. The first and maybe the second round of culling weed out the deformed and the weak. From there, if it is sellable, it is kept. Today more than yesteryear, anything sellable is kept. And the critics (judges), on the otherhand, are required to enforce the standards and are at times at odds with this marketing trend.

            The amateur judge once judged koi strictly on a point system. This gave us winning koi and therefore statements about ‘the ideal’ based on a check list of points. The honored fish was one that was technically most correct but maybe rather unspectacular. And worse- the fish that was amazing in one major aspect, but maybe weak due to the check list totals, was loosing to an overall ‘lesser’ fish. So subjectivity was allowed into the judging process to help get the final result right and also not to suppress the breeder’s evolution of varieties.

            Additionally, a breeder is typically keeping the top 2%- 10% of his spawn. So siblings are ‘competing for their survival’ within that culling process. But at the show, one breeder’s top 10% are competing for their ‘survival’ against another breeder’s top 10%. This is a different type of ‘culling process’. So naturally criteria are different.

            In the case of confirmation, a judge is dealing with expanded criteria. There is an overlap between breeder definitions and judging definitions due to a standard created specifically around the koi show. Still fundamentally the basic re-enforcement of kesson and Ketson is accomplished at both the breeding level and the awards level. And important thing as the whole point to retain strength and vigor in line bred animals. But there is more than this in the show definition of ‘body’.

            Confirmation, in the koi show world, is about how a koi moves as much as how a koi looks. It is about missing parts, about ‘change’ as a fish goes under new it’s owner’s care, about health issues and about overall impression.

            Confirmation to the breeder is about health, lack of birth defects and I’m sorry to say this- if the buyer will notice minor faults and flaws or if they will likely go un-noticed.

            Finally in the case of breeders, they are not considering three fish competing against each other but rather a line in the sand as to what is an acceptable carp body and what is not. The very last tategoi in a breeder’s batch of ‘keepers’ is his least favorite. But it is still a tategoi. Judges are only interested in 1, 2 and 3! Naturally this places details of conformation in a more intensive and expanded light.

            A long ramble with a lot of side points, but I hope you get the idea?



            • #7

              JR is referring to how "conformation" is used to mean different things by different people. Oftentimes it is used to simply mean "big", but to a judge "conformation" is much more. Size may be what the man-on-the-street hobbyist is referencing, but size relates to only an aspect of conformation. A large size is not necessarily the relevant factor. It is a question of whether the koi has the appropriate length and bulk for the total presentation of the fish, and whether it has a body structure that allows it to carry that length and bulk.

              The beauty of koi may be in the eye of the beholder, but over the past 50 years standards have arisen as a consequence of judging koi for show. These standards are not written rules by which a person can take a tape measure and determine whether the subject koi meets the "standard". Rather, they are the result of the composite sense of beauty represented by the multitude of judging decisions made at the many koi shows held around the world. As appreciation of koi deepens and the eye becomes educated to see the whole fish, there are characteristics which come to be recognized as favorable. These may be influenced by the fad of the time and the preferences of individual judges, but in the combination of the many separate decisions a common understanding arises.

              This in turn influences the breeder, for whom producing fish that can be contenders in the show ring drives the culling and selection process. Profit is found in the few fish that can contend, not in bulk production of "every sort for every taste".

              Which brings us back to the subject... body shapes.

              What are the standards when it comes to body shape? Is there a single ideal shape all nishikigoi breeders should be striving to attain? Or, should conformation be conceived as an ideal shape suited to the particular variety being considered? Or, are there several body shapes equally acceptable for any koi?

              Let us start with Kohaku, simply because it is the most refined and revered variety. The torpedo shape of the best Kohaku is nothing like wild carp. It is the idealized shape that has succeeded in the show tank. It is a long-bodied shape. It can carry bulk, but curvature in the area between the spine and lateral line is not as rounded as in, say, Chagoi. The width of the fish is not concentrated at the shoulder and head, nor at mid-section. It tapers in a streamlined fashion. Imagine for a moment that you saw a Kohaku shaped like a Chagoi with about as much girth as length...Would it look "right"? Or, would it seem too fat and cumbersome? To my eye, a Kohaku should look like a fish that can zoom through the water. The shape of a mature Chagoi would not suit it. So, while bulk on a Kohaku gives one an imposing impression, the abdomen muscles should be strong and contain the eggs in a sleek package. It is the combination of bulk with an impression of speed and agility that makes the simple red and white patterning of Kohaku so impressive.

              In comparison, the Chagoi is all about bulk in my opinion. The coloration is plain. It is the unmarred skin and even scalation that makes one Chagoi stand out from others of its type. The massive bulk in itself makes the impression that draws koikeepers to these fish. A streamlined Chagoi would not be the same. It would just be plain. But, with mature bulk, the large, even scales can be hypnotic... and there is no better canvas for displaying scalation than the inflated shape, with its wide, rounded curves. An inflated belly will not have the detrimental effect on the visual impression of a Chagoi that it would have on a Kohaku. Is that because our collective eye has simply come to expect such bulk in Chagoi? Or, is it because the bulk suits the variety best? Or, is it something far simpler... That's simply what a Chagoi is. That is, we know Chagoi have certain characteristics and we see the combination of those characteristics as defining the ideal body structure for Chagoi. If that is correct, then we are saying that the torpedo shape of Kohaku is not the single ideal all koi should be bred to match.

              And if the ideal body structure for Kohaku is different than the ideal shape for Chagoi, then we are left to look at other varieties according to what best suits each. Should Showa conform to the body shape in which it originated, or is it acceptable for Showa to take on the Kohaku-shape through breeding in Kohaku genes to obtain better quality red pigment? Should Ogons continue becoming more streamlined? It is how judges at shows view these fish and what hobbyists will pay the highest prices to obtain that ultimately influences what is bred.

              [To be continued]


              • #8

                I'll take all the Chagoi-body-shaped Kohakus you don't want...seems when i look at those few ZNA mags i got that the GC's had that kind of shape and couldn't "zip" through nothing but a tube of izikie paste


                • #9

                  Well, Luke, if I could get one without a shimmy, I'd join you.

                  But, I'd rather have a 32" Kohaku that looked like the Reserve GC at the 2006 Central Florida Koi Show than a Kohaku that looked like one of Carl Forss' magnificent 32" Chagoi. Think about it.


                  • #10

                    Not a judge, uneducated observations

                    I think Mike has an excellent point.
                    A plain colored Koi has the need for bulk in order to command attention be it Chagoi, Kigoi, Benigoi,... That type of body conformation adds the impression of strength which compensates for "plainness". They are more about strength than graceful art.
                    A boldly patterned Koi like an old style Showa or Utsuri needs a massive frame to accomodate the massive look of it's pattern. Kindai Showa and Sanke on the other hand seem to look nice even with a slightly more modest frame.
                    Modestly patterned varieties like a typical bekko or a kohaku with a gentle pattern type look good with a narrower torpedo frame because the frame and pattern compliment each other as to scale.
                    The Kohaks with larger patterns tend to have bulkier frames (if we judge them to be attractive), also as a result of the scale of frame and pattern complimenting each other.
                    None of this is based on any expertise (of which I have none). Just casual observation.
                    I'd be interested to get the impressions of others and especially from a few experienced breeders and judges as to how far off I may be. (C'mon JR, am I close or just confused?)
                    Larry Iles


                    • #11

                      also consider that a Chagoi looks heavy because it doesn't have a pattern that breaks it up. St Ephen's 40.25 GC from CFKS '05 looked quite the massive Mistress...
                      However the heads on so many of the Cha's are the acceptable "cute baby-face that I think should be a severe demerit.


                      • #12

                        Right MikM, exactly right.

                        This is a multi-level conversation, The reality of genetics and what body types actually do exist out there- the 'hump', the torpedo, the short food fish body, the longer matsunosuke body etc.
                        Then there is the conversation about ideal male vs female body shape

                        And THEN the conversation about the breeder's standard of 'body' verses the judges standard of conformation ( as an expanded analysis beyond just body).

                        I mentioned , on another 'channel' the concept of atavism. It is not politically correct to use this concept any more but it is still very much a real scientific principle in animal genetics. Bacically in koi we have two genes that battle one another over color and other traits. The 'wild gene' or atavistic gene, battles other inbred genes for domination. In this case, reversion to the wild state and wild color. In the battle, the modifying gene which is also known as the white ground spreading gene is kept at bay by the atavistic gene. Neither of these is a color gene but rather genes that encourage or discourage color gene presence. Chagoi is a fish dominated by the atavistic gene. Ochiba for instance is a fish that had some modifying gene present in an otherwise wild type or solid type pattern.
                        As far as the body goes- we often use the 'orientation' of improvement to describe how refined and advanced a koi line has become. In truth, in the eyes of Mother Nature, this is a weakening of her creation and a sort of dead end. 'She' instead, favors a larger more diverse gene pool and has given these koi many atavistic traits- including size and strength. We all know that inbreeding weakens and decreases vigor and health in individuals. Our best koi are often our weakest koi. No surprise there.



                        • #13

                          Thanks for the explainations.

                          Personally, I do not like either dolphin-nose or hump-back fish and think these characteristics should be bred out of koi.



                          • #14

                            Similar to Chagoi is the Ogon group. An article in the electronic Rinko issue of June 15 notes that some enormous Ogons attracted much attention at the 2006 Tokyo All Japan Show. They were crowd pleasers due to their body structure. ... big, long but thick-bodied, with a large, blunt rounded head. A good Ogon looks strong and hard-bodied, like an armored warrior. Decades ago, Ogon did not have as much shine or clarity of color as we see today. Breeders have focused on shine and color intensity to create striking fish. The search for color and shine has resulted in many Ogon lacking the extraordinary bodies of old-style Ogon. When the old-style body combines with high metallic shine, the impression is awesome.

                            On another board JR has observed that the robust body of Ogon has been largely sacrificed in Kujaku as a result of crossing with Kohaku to obtain more intense pigment. The Kohaku body shape is becoming dominant.

                            In my opinion, if koikeepers saw more well-grown mature koi in the Ogon group, they would select the duller orange of Hariwake or Kujaku with old-style body over the more slightly built but deeper orange or red of the contemporary Kujaku/Hariwake. However, few koikeepers have ponds that can accomodate full-sized Ogons, and far fewer purchase mature ones. When seen as young fish, the deep colors prevail...both in the sale tank and the show tank. Breeders supply what the market demands.

                            I think we would all agree that the key trait of Ogon is its metallic shine. That shine is what makes an Ogon. It is greatest on the fins and the head where the skin is clear... and upon maturity in the thick fukurin skin encasing the scales.

                            So, what shape is best suited to Ogon? I would suggest that the old-style body has the advantage over the torpedo shape for two reasons. First, the broad head of old-style Ogon provides the better canvas to highlight metallic shine. Second, the inflated body better exhibits scalation. Third, the large proportions project the powerful image of armor plates. It is quite a trade-off when you have to choose between body shape and higher quality pigment. Perhaps breeders will eventually find a way to give koikeepers the best of both. Meanwhile, judges have a responsibility to be sure they are considering the whole fish when judging contemporary and older style Ogons competing with one another.


                            • #15

                              some pictures of a famous ogon- 108 cm. JR
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