Koi's Town : County's Akiyamas Have Been Raising 'Living Jewels' Since the 1920s

Times Staff Writer

The pond churned in a Technicolor boil. Big, gaping fish mouths surged to the surface as Joseph Akiyama cast feed pellets on the water. The splashing increased. The vivid colors of the koi--red, black, white, gold and metallic black--became a blur.

"They'll eat a lot," Akiyama sighed, the gurgle of a waterfall at his goldfish farm almost drowning out his soft voice. "It's a good thing their teeth are in their throats," added his wife, Sumie.

It was not a pretty sight, but as Akiyama points out, people are not buying table manners when they buy these spectacularly colored creatures--top specimens of which fetch $150,000 in Japan.

"That's an awful lot of money for a fish," Akiyama, 65, said chuckling. "They're paying for prestige, I imagine. Must be a beautiful fish. Has to be."

So, if they want to eat like pigs, let 'em.

The Akiyamas know their goldfish, or Carassius aratus . The family can spin quite a fish story, beginning and maybe soon ending here in Orange County.

Akiyama's father is credited with introducing koi to Southern California shortly after World War I, according to Robert Spindola, head of the Nishiki Koi Club of Orange County. (In Japanese, the fish is called Nishikigoi, or "living jewel . " )

Born in 1888, the year before this area was even called Orange County, Kiyomi Henry Akiyama decided to leave the family farm in the mountains north of Tokyo just as he was about to be drafted into the Imperial Army. With a life's savings of 300 yen, he sailed in 1904 at the age of 16 for America and opportunity.

He first worked as a field laborer and began raising goldfish as a hobby, specimens he had shipped in from Japan. By the 1920s, he was raising the fish full time on his own 40-acre farm--first in Huntington Beach and then in Westminster.

Akiyama recalled his father--who died in March at age 100--loading an old pickup truck with barrels of goldfish and driving up to Los Angeles to sell his swimming rainbows door to door at pet shops.

This booming success attracted a handful of imitators, mostly Nisei families, who also set up ponds in Westminster, Akiyama said.

At that time, so many of the finny creatures were raised in Westminster that the city post office canceled stamps with the mark: "Goldfish Capital of the World," Akiyama said. That self-promoting slogan continued on some city post cards until the 1960s, even as the farms were gobbled up by shopping malls, freeways and land speculators.

"It all stopped when land prices started going up," Akiyama said. "Land prices and property taxes."

Tucked today into a lot on Golden West Street off the San Diego Freeway, the Pacific Goldfish Farm once spread over what is now Westminster Mall. About 10,000 goldfish and koi paddle around in 20,000 gallons of circulating fresh water on about 1 acre. That's a lot of sushi, and the public can call the farm for viewing.

Because there's no longer enough room to raise the fish, Akiyama imports them from Japan.

Air freight is a delicate operation. A goldfish broker in Tokyo collects the creatures from around Japan. The broker places the fish gently in 30-gallon plastic bags with infusions of oxygen the day Akiyama calls in an order and whisks the sealed cargo to the airport.

The fish are starved for several days so they won't foul their water with too many droppings. For such insatiable appetites, that must certainly be the most arduous aspect of the trans-Pacific journey.

Within 24 hours of his first telephone call to the Tokyo broker, Akiyama takes the fish from Los Angeles International Airport into his farm tanks. "Sometimes they look shocked," he said, but a meal and medication quickly right their mood.

The most valuable of his fish are the koi (pronounced coy), which make up half the farm's piscine stock, Akiyama said. But he sells mostly to hobbyists, not to the koi elite. For $500, a buyer could walk off with Akiyama's best red-and-white Kohaku.

"No, we're not that much into expensive kois," Akiyama said. "This way we reach more people."

Koi are special, he said, and tend to be coddled by owners. If ill, these creatures--which can be worth more than their weight in caviar, sometimes have surgery performed on them.

But koi return their owners' attention, Akiyama said. "They can associate sounds with feeding time. They seem to know when the door (outside to the farm tanks) opens."

One koi fancier tells a story about when he left his ailing ornamental carp with a fish doctor for a month. The fish darted across the pond so fast when the owner returned that he never saw the creature begging at his feet. The fish doctor had to point the frantic koi out.

Koi have long enjoyed a colorful tradition, revered over the centuries by emperors and nobility as ornamental pets. Said to have originated in Persia and Pakistan 2,500 years ago, koi were brought across the Asian steppes with Ghengis Khan to China in the 13th Century.

From China, they migrated to Japan, where they became and remained a national passion. Indeed, the national fish is the nishikigoi. Each year on Boy's Day (May 5), carp flags called koinboiri fly as a symbol of strength and courage.

Koi can grow up to 4 feet in length, said Spindola of the koi club, particularly in Japan where size increases value. And females are the most treasured because they are larger than males.

In the United States, however, Spindola said the males are the most popular "because they have much better color and are prettier when they're young. A female in the koi world is very fat and large, like a Rubens painting of a beautiful woman. Big, rotund giant things."

While koi generally live about 20 years, some have been known to outlive their owners.

About 10 years ago the oldest-known koi, Hanoko, died at age 226 in Tokyo. Published obituaries actually traced back in time all the families who had owned the scaly Methuselah.

Akiyama said one of the koi his father first raised 60 years ago may still be swimming in an Orange County pond.

Growing up on a fish farm, however, has reduced some of the charm koi inspire in so many others, Akiyama said. Now he is even considering "any good offers" on the farm--none of his children wanted to continue the family tradition.

"I'm getting tired," he said, leaning up against the counter in the fishery supplies store that fronts the ponds. "It gets stressful at times--all these living things to keep alive."

Goldfish stress may be unique to Akiyama.

Many fish end up in dentist, doctor and tax-preparer offices for their reputed powers to calm jangled nerves, Sumie Akiyama said.

"So many people out there truly enjoy them," she said. "And koi ponds create tranquillity. It fits into the California life style. So soothing."

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