Selecting Koi for Show or for Pond and How They are Judged - Part I

by Dr. Arthur Lembke, Maryland

To understand how Koi are selected for pond or show, you must first understand how they are judged. Koi are judged based on:


All Koi are judged based on these five elements, regardless of the variety. The only difference would then be the individual standards for that variety.


Conformation includes the body shape, the proportions of the body, finnage, head shape, width at the eyes and shoulders and so on. Differences in body occur at different ages of Koi and we must recognize this proper development over time. The proper body can show power and elegance at the same time. As a Koi matures the body becomes that much more important. When young, pattern and color are most important, but when a Koi gets older it must show power.

The Head should be wide and the nose should be rounded. If the nose is too pointy the fish will lack elegance. The forehead area should have a gradual descent from the shoulder to the nose. If it cuts too quickly down the head looks more like a shark. The forehead should be slightly convex, not flat. Faces, around the cheeks, can be rounded or more squared at the jaw depending on bloodline, but both are OK. There is a perfect triangle that the eyes and nose form that you will recognize as you get more experience. If the nose is too short or long it can throw off the conformation. This triangle is almost an equilateral triangle. Look at pictures of Show winners and study this.

The Body is said to be Torpedo Shaped. The widest part, if looking down, is between the back of the gill plates to the leading ray of the dorsal fin. If the widest point is at the gills and cuts back too fast to the tail, then the fish has no power. If the widest part extends back further than this, then the Koi has a chubby type appearance and this too lacks power. The tail tube should be thick to depict power. From the side you would follow the same rules without the stomach hanging down too much. If the lowest point is under the gills, then the Koi is said to be pigeon-chested. Choman is a stomach disorder where the stomach hangs down at the back the furthest. The stomach should be carried in a muscular way rather than a flabby way. Make sure the spine is straight. Watch it swim and see if everything is carried straight. Also look from the side to see if the fish carries itself properly. Make sure the head or tail is straight out and not facing up or down.

Fins are very important too. The pectoral fins should be wide almost like angel wings to give elegance. Large pectorals are good as long as they are in proportion. They should have strong edges, not frayed. Check the leading rays to make sure they extend all the way out to the end. Sometimes these are trimmed if damaged. Make sure all fins are there and not damaged. The Dorsal fin should have a strong front ray and when in a raised position should have no holes or show any signs of past fin rot. The tail should be powerful and not wispy. The anal fin is subject to damage by fin rot and netting so check it. Look for any signs of scar tissue from previously broken fins.


Color is a product of genetics, bloodline, pond conditions, age and, to some extent, sex of the Koi. Good water will bring out good color. If genetics are not good then good water will not matter. And if genetics are good and the water poor, then you still get bad results.

Color has to be uniform throughout the fish. All the whites, reds, blacks, Matsuba, blues, have to be the same on all parts of the fish. There should not be any windows in the color. Color should exist in clear groupings of at least three scales large. Color must have thickness. It should be clear and not dirtied by spots. You should not see white between the colors as the fish moves. Color should have a healthy gloss and not be dull. When Koi are young the color is thinner and the scales are more opaque. This is why we see more blurred Sashi (leading edge of pattern clarity) at an earlier age and when the scale gets thicker it tightens up. Young, immature females can have a more yellow appearance to the skin from carotene in the skin, but as they mature the carotene goes to egg production and the skin gets more white.

Color and body is what you always look for whether you are buying Show Koi or Pond Koi. The difference between a pond Koi and a Show Koi is that the Show Koi has a good pattern and higher skin quality which makes it more valued. The difference between an Expensive Show Koi and a Very Expensive Show Koi is the degree of the skin quality and small elegance points that are sought after by collectors. It may be a different arrangement of color near the tail, it might be a Head Pattern, it might be the placement of color around the dorsal. There are many things in Koi Appreciation that value a Koi.


Pattern is very important in selecting Show Koi. Pattern has its own rules in the different varieties. The one thing that is common, amongst all the varieties, is that the pattern must be balanced. Balanced from left to right and balanced from front to back.

For true balance, if the Koi is divided front to back in thirds rather than halves, all sections should be balanced. If all the color is in the front we call it front heavy, in the back called back heavy. Pattern should have a good edge. The trailing edge is called kiwa at the back of the red or black color, where it touches the white. It should be very sharp looking and can be full scaled Maruzome or follow a straight line in the case of Kamisori kiwa. If the red or black is thick enough it will cover the scale behind it, which is white, very well. Therefore, giving the clean edge.The front edge of the pattern where it is overlapped by white is called Sashi. Sashi takes longer to clear as it takes more years for the white scale to thicken to cover the darker scale underneath. Many times, on a high quality Shiro Utsuri, where the second color is intense black, the Sashi never becomes totally straight. The black is so thick, that the white can never cover it up. Therefore sometimes an unclear sashi can be acceptable if the color is real thick, but even then the sashi must be of uniform thickness. Say one or two scales.

As you see, there is a whole appreciation for Kiwa and Sashi. These are much harder to attain on Wagoi (scaled) Koi than Doitsu (scaleless). For this reason, Wagoi are more valued than Doitsu. The harder it is for the Koi to attain that perfect look the more valued.

Colors must be in the right proportion on the Koi. Larger patterns on a large fish seem to give a vision of power. Small patterns on small fish are said to be cute. Small patterns on a large fish lack elegance and show weakness. After all, the Koi is a symbol of strength in the Japanese culture.

Patterns that wrap deeply around the fish, called Maki, are said to show a more powerful look. Nose and tail color, ending the same, tend to frame a Koi and give elegance. A pattern that travels around the dorsal fin rather than through it, is elegant. Deep insertions of color that have many edges to show the clarity of kiwa are preferred. Where it is harder to attain perfection on the fish, it is more prized if they are perfect. Sort of like bonus points for being difficult. The prize is in the journey or challenge. If a fish is easier to breed, say like an Ogon or Shusui, then they are less valued and considered less elegant. A complex fish like a wagoi Showa is highly valued when everything is just right.

Pattern needs interest to get your attention. It is said to be like a Japanese Garden. First, the head pattern draws you into the garden. Then the shoulders and their power draw you in so you want to see more. Then you travel a path and if the end of the trail is just like the beginning, it rounds out your journey.


Quality can be seen in many ways. Quality may be in skin and skin texture. The skin should be smooth. The scales should be slightly convex to reflect light outward toward the viewers¡ lens. If a scale is flat or concave, as in older Koi skin, the skin lacks luster. Quality can be in depth of color. Quality can be in the shine of the skin, which can be attributed to the Guanine in the skin. Quality can be in the softness of a color and how it appears to the eye. Quality can also be in one¡s mind, from different exposures to Koi over the years. Perception of quality can be just as interesting to study as tangible quality. Females are more valued as Koi get older. This is because the skin tends to maintain this softness and texture longer than the males. Males skin tends to peak at a much earlier age and is shorter lived. Looking at quality and being able to properly value a Koi, as far as price, comes with many years experience. It is a tough concept to learn and to explain. How is a $15,000 Koi different than a $30,000 Koi? Some people can¡t tell and unless you know, there may be no difference. Just a breeder asking too much money for his Koi. The old saying comes to mind when people ask me to explain quality, "I know it when I see it."


Most people think that the biggest Koi wins, but that is not always the case. Big does not have anything to do with imposing. Have you ever seen a long large skinny fish? It is not a pleasant sight. This is where that word "Power" comes in. It helps to be big to show power, but the body must also be wide and muscular. A fish can be many inches smaller than a larger fish, and still have more power. Power emanates from many things. Most of all it has to do with body conformation. However, as we talked about earlier, pattern can also show power. Any wimpy pattern can spoil it for a large fish. Body proportion can show power. Large pectorals and tail show power. Wide shoulders show power. High body form, at the shoulders, shows power. Thick tail joint shows power. Not only the body, but the way a fish presents itself when swimming is important. It should swim level, not head up or tail up. It should display its fins out, not have them clamped by its sides. It should be saying look at me while you are walking by the tank. So, as you can see, there are many things that can depict power. It does not always have to be the largest fish. One can also see that, with these requirements for power, in the larger sizes, that females will have the edge as far as having more of these attributes.

All the Judging standards that are common to all varieties are discussed above. These will be the same things you look for when purchasing and looking at Koi. When purchasing Show Koi, all the five features above should be sought after in one neat package. When buying pond Koi, some of these features will become less important in order to drop the price to a range where you are comfortable. Body is always important and, for viewing, color is always important. These should never be compromised. The other three Judging standards are where things need to drop off to lower the price of a Koi. Hopefully within these short-comings, you can find a Koi that is still pleasing for you to watch, if you are just interested in pond Koi.