Imagine the surprising symbolic opportunities that would appear if the English language had more homophones.
What if the word “pig” was an animal, and also the word for beauty? What if “violet” was a flower, and also the word for devotion? What if “carp” was a fish, and also the word for love?
As it happens, koi, the Japanese word for ornamental carp, actually is also the word for love and affection. The kanji or Chinese characters are different, but the pronunciation is the same. That means that everyone’s favorite garden pond fish is even more beloved in Japan because it is also a symbol for love.
Koi are distant relatives to fishbowl goldfish, but are distinguished by their larger size, metallic scales, and long and often flowing tails. Carp that are marked with splotches of orange, black, white, and other colors are known as nishikigoi, or brocade carp.
Koi’s large and often protruding eyes make them appear more intelligent than other fish. And maybe they are; they always seem to swim over when a human approaches the edge of a pond, probably because they’re looking for food. Koi breeders report that their fish often learn to recognize them.
Like many auspicious symbols in Japan, koi are also prized for their longevity; they routinely live 40 years or more, and one koi reportedly lived to the age of 228 years (1).
I don’t think the image of a koi could ever replace a heart as the symbol of love in the West. But I do know that the languorous
movement of the plump but beautiful koi have the power to instantly transform a pond or garden pool anywhere in the world into a Japanese landscape. Koi hashioki have the power to transform a dining table into a Japanese table, too.
(1) Carwardine, Mark. Animal Records. New York: Sterling, 2008, p. 201.
For other examples of koi, please see the posts for Kintarō (March 2016) and Koi no bori (April 2016).