Samurai were not only busy swinging around swords and spears taking people’s lives. They also gave life. To goldfish. Goldfish were mass-produced and became a popular pet among Japanese people in the 18th-19th century, thanks to a creative samurai.

Show host Kyota Ko narrates how the beautiful Japanese breeds of goldfish came to be, tracing back their origin to a single samurai lord who lived and thrived over 250 years ago.

Hello world! Welcome to the Metro-classic Japanese podcast. I’m Kyota. I had been on a break from making podcasts for a while. I was busy at work, and daily Instagram updates were the only thing I was able to manage doing. 

But I came to realize I wanted to get back to speaking about Japanese culture again. I’ve reconfirmed that this is my thing. 

Now I’d like to start with a simple question today. Have you had a goldfish as a pet before? Goldfish are bred in many parts of the world, and it’s said that there are over a hundred varieties now. And in Japan, samurai who lived up to around 150 years ago were major contributors to the goldfish industry. Why did samurai have anything to do with these little fish?

So today I want to tell you about how a group of samurai were making a living out of breeding and mass-producing goldfish some 200 years ago.

Goldfish originally came from China

First of all, Japanese goldfish are of Chinese origin – just like many other things people generally consider to be a part of Japanese culture, they’re from China – like tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism, ramen, soba. They were all introduced to Japan centuries ago from China, and Japanese people localized them and then evolved them into something distinctly Japanese. 

Anyway, once upon a time, around 2,000 years ago, a mutant carp that was colored red was found in southern China, and fast forward several centuries and it’s said that it was brought to Japan some 400 to 500 years ago. 

They were pets exclusively for royalty and some samurai lords because these extremely rich people were the only people who could afford to have ponds in their home gardens. 

Tough times for the samurai class

To give you a little background information, samurai lords and samurai working under samurai lords were the ruling class of Japan between 1185 and 1868. So quite a long time! They had also been the heroes of Japan until the end of the 16th century because the whole country was in a state of civil war. 

Samurai lords of each of the 70 or so regions were fighting each other in a massive battle royal, so experts in battle, A.K.A. samurai, were in high demand and they were looked up to and feared because they were the ones who protected peasants from invaders.

But Japan was united under a single samurai family in the early 1600s, peace was attained. There weren’t really any more battles between the 17th and mid 19th century in Japan. 250 years of peace! Which is both good news and bad news for samurai because their expertise was no longer of much use. So how did samurai make a living during this era of peace?

They were paid allowances by the central government. After tax was collected from peasants, a part of the tax income was distributed to samurai. Samurai who were talented in politics and desk work were really busy and contributed to developing the country, but the vast majority were not doing much. They were a privileged group of people who kinda had a basic income.

So naturally, the whole country started seeing much of the samurai class as a liability. Even the central samurai government started cutting corners and paid less and less to samurai of lower status. Because they were not doing much for the country. They didn’t deserve it. 

Eventually, their pays became so low that they were not enough to pay the bills, so these lower samurais started taking on second jobs. They handcrafted umbrellas and lanterns at home and submitted their work to local merchants, and got paid for providing their labor. 

It’s kinda sad to think how samurai, by day, would walk around and boss around town with swords dangling from their belts, and then they would go back home in the evening to secretly do some manual labor to make a few bucks so that they wouldn’t starve. We don’t see any hints of goldfish yet, but it’s this desperation that pushes things forward.

Samurai clans rise to deal with debt

So samurai were getting poorer at an individual level, but they were financially challenged at an organizational level too. 

During the 250 years of peace, which we call the Edo Period because that was the name of Tokyo back then and Edo was the center of politics and business – During this Edo Period, the country was governed by a central samurai government and around 240 or so samurai clans positioned under it, each of which governed a rural area of Japan. So basically, the samurai king’s family ruled Japan, governed the biggest city Edo, and managed over 200 subordinate samurai families who themselves ruled bits and pieces of the country.

Now most of these clans eventually found themselves in massive debt. Again, these samurai are experts in warfare, and not the best businesspeople. And on top of that, the central government mandated very costly rituals onto all samurai clans – samurai clans were expected to parade to Edo from their home ground and then back every two years, with hundreds of servants, on foot! The farthest samurai clan lived a 1,000 km from Tokyo. That’s over 600 miles.

So basically, samurai clans needed to finance a bi-annual business trip for hundreds to thousands of employees, and these trips lasted months. Imagine paying for food and accommodation for all these people. 

And all this bullying was so that subordinate samurai clans wouldn’t be able to save up money to finance a potential coup de tat. Pretty harsh, wasn’t it? Most samurai clans eventually default because some of their debts were as high as 9 billion dollars at one point. The central government eventually admits that the system wasn’t working. 

Goldfish save samurai clan

But there were some samurai clans that managed to pay off their debts, at least partially. Many of these clans encouraged their people to mass-produce local specialties like sugar, salt, paper and wax. 

But there was this one clan in what is now Nara Prefecture in Western Japan that decided to pay off their debts by mass-producing goldfish. Not salt, not sugar, but goldfish.

Back in 1724, a very talented samurai lord was assigned to rule a region called Koriyama. His name was Yanagizawa Yoshisato. He had just had a successful run as a ruler in another part of Japan. Reading what people have written about him, I get the impression he was the type of person you would want to have as a boss. He seemed to have been a compassionate, generous and intellectual, open-minded ruler. 

So by the time he moved to Koriyama, goldfish was already his thing. He brought a few goldfish breeders over from his birthplace. And he saw how rich in water Koriyama was, so he decided to turn his massive back yard into a massive goldfish farm, and succeeded. 

Goldifish used to be luxurious pets reserved only for the rich, but this Koriyama samurai clan set up a low-margin high turnover business out of goldfish and made them available to everyone. Koriyama made it through a terrible famine the whole country suffered from later in that century largely thanks to their business in goldfish. 

The goldfish scoop at local shrine festivals

When I was a kid, my parents would sometimes take me to a festival at a local shrine. Shrines have festivals once or twice a year and it’s quite similar to  American local Independence Day fairs, so they’d have stalls selling snack and little games you can play. Several townspeople carry a portable shrine on their shoulders and parade it around the neighborhood. 

You can actually see one of these portable shrines on display in the subway station of Asakusa, so check it out the next time you go there. And for children, there’s an even smaller portable shrine they parade around the neighborhood. The festival keeps going until night, and at night, they would light up red and yellow lanterns so you get that magical and nostalgic feel you might have in your memories from the local town fair.

So anyway, one of the games you can play at local festivals is the goldfish scoop. You sit in front of a water tank full of goldfish, and you get this ladle with the rim made of plastic and the plate made of thin paper. You hold the ladle in your right hand, or left, if you’re a lefty. And in your other hand, you hold a bowl where you would put in the goldfish you manage to catch. 

So you try to scoop as many goldfish as you can but the ladle’s made of paper so if you use the center of the ladle to scoop a fish, the paper won’t be able to hold the weight and will rip. So it’s pretty difficult to catch even one fish. You need to use the rim so that the weight of the fish doesn’t go on the paper much. 

But if you’re a little kid and you don’t catch a thing, the shopkeeper may sometimes just give you a goldfish as a consolation prize, because they have so many! And I think that’s how I got to bring home 4 goldfish when I was like 9 or 10. I don’t think I was athletic enough to pull off a goldfish scoop. 

Reasons to have goldfish

So I brought them home and we had a huge porcelain vase outside our house, so we put water and some aquatic plants in there, and let the goldfish swim there. The next morning, 3 of them were dead. I’m guessing it was because there wasn’t enough oxygen in the water. We didn’t have an air pump that produces bubbles. But one survived, and it kept living for years, and it eventually grew 3 times its original size. 

One morning we noticed it had a big scar so we figured a cat came along and scratched it or something, but the goldfish still kept living. I think it was alive for at least 6 or 7 years. The average life expectancy of goldfish is 10 to 15 years, and there’s a Guiness record of a goldfish that lived for 43 years. 

They are really easy to have as pets and this is definitely part of the reason aside from them being cheap that literally almost every home had goldfish once upon a time in Japan. There was a German archaeologist who traveled to Japan in the 19th century, and in his diary it says how every home had goldfish in Edo City. In fact, everywhere in Edo, there were merchants carrying big bowls of goldfish on a pole which they carried around on their shoulders.

The right way to enjoy goldfish

It’s not surprising that Japan developed several kinds of goldfish through crossbreeding. I like the names of some of these Japanese breeds. And what’s interesting about Japanese breeds is that they are made so that they look pretty when you look at them from above. 

Glasswares were not very common in Japan when goldfish were booming in Edo, so most people filled porcelain with water and put the fish in there. You can’t see through a porcelain so they enjoyed goldfish by watching them from above. It also means goldfish were often paired with the design on the well of the porcelain. So as a result, you kinda get to create art with movement by combining a pretty porcelain you happen to have at home and a goldfish with pretty patterns you happen to buy at an aquatic pet store. 

By the late 19th century, goldfish were bred in various parts of the country, and one of these areas was Edogawa which was the name of a district and river in the eastern side of Edo, pretty close to where Tokyo Disney Land is now. Edo City changed its name to Tokyo in 1868 but Edogawa kept its name. A breed of goldfish called Edonishiki kept its name. It’s a beautiful breed which I’ll post a photo of on the blog post of this podcast.

Anyway, so Tokyo City, the goldfish Edonishiki, Edogawa, Edo Period, and samurai are on one cultural continuum. I hope that tempts you to get a goldfish and a porcelain for your living room. Thank you for listening, and please check out my Instagram @themetroclassic for daily content on Japanese culture.