This interview was originally conducted with Mitsunori Isa in September 2009. Whilst much has changed at Isa Koi Farm in the interim period many of the points discussed are very relevant still.
The male Showa discussed in the interview has been instrumental in progressing the Isa Showa brand.
Your father started Isa Koi Farm in 1970, that’s the year before you were born isn’t it?
Yes, my father started the farm in the spring of 1970, I was born in the winter of 1971.
As a child did you get involved with Nishikigoi and helping your father?
When I was a young infant my grandmother would look after me whilst my mother and father did all the work on the farm, they had no staff. After I could walk I would sometimes follow my parents around, for example when they fed the Koi. Once I started primary school I didn’t really get involved at all, only occasionally doing kuroko sembestu or helping if there were emergencies.
I understand that when you left high school you went to Tokyo because your father wanted you to think about things before joining the family business. Did you work or study in Tokyo? What age were you and how long did you stay?
Yes, after I graduated Nagaoka Agricultural College at 18 I went to work for a company called Yanoshin Shoji and worked in one of their gasoline stations in Shibuya, Tokyo. I stayed there for just under 3 years.
When did you decide that you wanted to become a Nishikigoi breeder? What was it that made you decide?
When I returned from Tokyo I had an interest in joining the Nishikigoi business but still wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do so was still looking at other opportunities. We had mud ponds in Futamata and the opportunity came up to purchase land in Muikimachi. This was a large open piece of land which offered an ideal opportunity to expand Isa Koi Farm. My father basically said to me that if I had made my mind up to join the family business, it didn’t matter that I had no experience, we would purchase that land and expand. I made my decision and that was a major turning point in my life.
How did you start to really learn and understand Nishikigoi, was it just by watching your father or did you have your own Koi you were responsible for?
I mainly learned from my father. We would undertake work together, for example sembetsu, or would visit other farms together so I could understand which Koi my father was choosing and why. Much of the work involved in being a Koi breeder is manual work maintaining ponds; all these tasks were learned from my father. Your question has made me remember an old story, in fact I’ve never told this story to anyone before. Before I was due to leave for Tokyo my father told me I could select any Koi as a gift. At that time most of the Koi were Kohaku. I studied the Koi and asked my father for hints as to which was a good one. My father told me just to pick one which was beautiful to me. After a while I pointed out my selected choice. A few minutes passed before my father asked me to point out the Koi again thinking, or rather hoping, I wouldn’t be able to. This happened several times until I eventually pointed to the same Koi as I’d originally chosen. That particular Koi wasn’t actually one bred by my father but one he had purchased for a lot of money from another breeder. My father kept the Koi for me whilst I was in Tokyo and, when I returned, that Kohaku became my first oyagoi.
Now you seem to have day to day responsibility for many things at the farm, what are the roles of you and your father and when did that change come about?
There is no specific time when I’ve taken over the running of the business from my father. Gradually over the years I have taken on more and more responsibility. From the time I started working with my father I’ve been involved in all of the important tasks. At that time most of the Koi breeders only worked part time, during the winter we would have different jobs; I worked as safety patrol at the ski slopes. My father worked as general secretary of the Shinkokai. During the winter we wouldn’t carry out sembetsu as we do now. In the beginning I would have some Koi which were my responsibility; it was up to me to set the price of those Koi for sale. The price of all the other Koi was set by my father. Many times I would sell Koi too cheaply. Even now I like to double check the selling price is right with my father before giving it to the customer. Selecting the parent sets has been my responsibility for a long while.
You are a member of San Nichi Kai. Can you tell us more about that? When did it start, who else is in it, what does it do, how often do you meet?
San Nichi Kai was started by breeders of my father’s generation. The first meeting was held on the 3rd of the month hence its name (ed: san nichi means 3rd day of the month). The original members consisted of my father, Izumiya, Oya, Kawakami, Hiroi, Hosokai, Dainichi, Hirashin and Oofuchi. Hirashin is no longer a breeder. Now the members are the 2nd generation of San Nichi Kai, they are myself, Futoshi Mano (Dainichi), Taro Kataoka (Oya), Masaru Hosokai, Takashi Kawakami (Jirosuke) and Kazuyoshi and Nobuyuki Hiroi (Yozen). We still meet for dinner every month and anyone who is of the same mind as us is welcome to join.
There are many other breeders of similar age who you’ve kind of grown up with, perhaps differently to when your father started when there would have been a different relationship between breeders. How much do the young breeders work together?
Being a member of San Nichi Kai is very important to me, it is the most important of the groups I belong too and I’ve learnt much from other members. Masaru Hosokai and the Hiroi twins have taught me much about appreciating the beauty and attractiveness of Nishikigoi. As well as sharing information between one another San Nichi Koi members encourage one another to keep improving and to compete against one another.
When your father started it was perhaps the start of the ‘golden era’ for the hobby in Japan and the time the hobby really started to grow in popularity. At the same time it started to grow in the UK and the USA. In all 3 the hobby is not as popular as it was then, but we’ve seen new markets open, particularly in Asia which you’ve visited a number of times. Where do you think the future of the hobby/industry will be strongest?
To be honest I don’t really have any idea which market will become strongest in the future. When I first started in the business we hadn’t exported any Koi because we focused on Gosanke. It was breeders who bred other varieties that got involved in the early export market. It’s only really the last 10 years or so we’ve been involved in the export market and the last 4 or 5 years when the export market has grown to be most of our business, around 80% in fact, half of which is in Asia.
Since you’ve become more involved in running things have you changed anything that Isa Koi Farm do?
Our attention is directed to the Koi, not the customers, by this I mean that if we concentrate on producing good Koi then the customers will come to us. Anyone is welcomed at Isa Koi Farm, if they like our Koi then that is great, if not then no problem, we will just work on continuing to produce the best Koi we can. In the past we didn’t advertise or take our Koi to shows, other than the Nogyosai, in the name of Isa Koi Farm. Over the last couple of years I’ve realised that there is sometimes a need to advertise in magazines and I now consider the best way for our Koi to be seen and promoted is to take good prizes at Koi shows.
Do you have any ideas that you’d like to implement in the future?
No, not really, the only thing I want to do is raise the levels of all areas of our production.
How many sets of parents did you spawn of what varieties?
This year we spawned 15 Showa, 4 Sanke and 1 Kohaku female. The Sanke and Kohaku spawnings did not deliver good results, that is why we have spawned so many Showa this year. Because of those failed spawnings we were able to spawn some female Showa for the first time and have now found some excellent new parents.
You purchased the new male Dainichi oyagoi which had taken 80bu male kokugyo at the All Japan Show. What was it that made you decide to purchase that Koi? What made you think it would be a good oyagoi?
I fell in love with it at a glance! I’d asked Narita to look out for some good potential oyagoi for me. He sent me 2 photographs, 1 did nothing for me and I discarded the picture, the other was this Koi and I decided straight away that I must have it. At the time the Koi was owned by one of Narita’s customers and he was to enter it into the 2009 All Japan Show, this was the first time I saw the Koi for real. The shiroji, beni and sumi are all of excellent quality and it has a great bodyline. Generally speaking large male Koi with high quality produce a small amount or even no sperm at all. Therefore it was a bit of a gamble whether this Koi would be a good parent. Normally when a male Koi is ready to spawn the mucous layer will decrease and the skin become rough. The first time this male was used it was anaesthetised and the skin was still sticky with mucous so I feared that it would be no good. When I turned the Koi over to try to remove some sperm my despair turned to joy when it produced lots. In the end I used the male on 3 different occasions with 9 different females.
How are the results?
For 6 females we split the eggs between previously successful males and the new male. 3 females were used solely with the new male. Some of the results are better with the new male, some are better with the original male, so we have an idea already what oyagoi we can pair next year. I really want to produce 2nd generation oyagoi from this male so the aim was to find females which are well matched to it.
All hands on deck for Kuroko sembetsu
How many tosai will you be harvesting?
Around 15.000 in total, 8-9.000 will be kept as tategoi.
When in October will you start harvesting nisai and older Koi? Can you tell us how many you’ll be harvesting?
We will start harvests in the middle of October. We will harvest 1500 nisai, 250 sansai, 50 yonsai and around 100 of gosai and older.
What are the main traits of Isa Showa that people should look for?
We are trying to produce jumbo Koi with good body confirmation for starters. Then we are trying to produce Showa with Kohaku beni which retains its quality as the Koi grow large. We are nearly there with our ideal beni and now we need to combine it with excellent sumi to create our ideal Showa.
What do you believe the best Koi produced by Isa Koi Farm is and why?
The best Koi we’ve produced is a Showa called Marumitsu. It was a very dynamic Koi with a good atmosphere and gave a strong impression. The Koi grew to 98cm. When it was 92cm it won best 80bu Showa at the 43rd Niigata Nogyosai Show. Unfortunately the Koi died around 3 years ago.
What is your favourite Koi of all time and why?
I cannot decide between Loulan, the Kohaku bred by Ogawa and the Inazuma Showa owned by Kato san and bred by Dainichi. Loulan was a large Koi and its skin was totally snow white and it had wonderful bright pink beni. The Inazuma Showa had a high quality hi pattern like a Kohaku or Sanke coupled with great sumi. I was lucky to see both Koi for real and no other Koi have created such an impression on me. People of my age are probably the last to see both Koi for real.
Other than your father, is there anyone else who has had an influence on you as a Koi breeder?
From a business point of view, Nakatsuka-san, a dealer in Saitama is someone I admire. He deals only in Japan but is always finding new customers and sells many Koi. With regards to breeders, Minoru Mano was a great person. Most breeders want to show off good Koi when they are young but Minoru Mano would keep secret Koi and grow them only revealing them when they were large. He showed great patience. The fact that Minoru Mano could develop not only 1, but all 3 Gosanke varieties, to become large and high quality is something I respect enormously. Minoru also taught me important business lessons, for example not to be scared of borrowing money from the bank to expand the business as without doing so it would be impossible to grow.
Do you regard Minoru Mano as the most important breeder of all time?
Yes, of the breeders that I’ve known Minoru Mano is the most important. Whether he is the most important of all time is difficult to say. For example, Ichiro Mano is regarded by many as a god yet I had no personal dealings with him. As I said, the achievements of Minoru Mano are huge, to produce grand champion Koi in 1 variety is hard enough, to have produce grand champion Kohaku, Sanke and Showa is amazing.
A little over 1 year after the interview was conducted, Isa Koi Farm were successful in winning Grand Champion at the Niigata Nogyosai for the first time, a feat they repeated in 2013, also taking the runner up prize as well.
Isa bred Koi regularly feature at the All Japan Koi Show and at the recent 2016 Niigata Nogyosai Isa Koi won best in sizes over 80bu, 80bu and 75bu.
Posted by Mark Gardner | Dec 2, 2016