How to Identify Gosanke: The Big Three of Japanese Koi Varieties

Trying to understand and identify the various types of Japanese koi can seem a bit daunting at first. Most people don’t take the time to learn the basics, preferring instead to simply choose koi that look appealing to them. But wouldn’t it be fun to know what type of koi are swimming in your pond?

Japanese koi are also known as Nishikigoi, which means “colorful carp” in Japanese. There are over 100 varieties of koi, but they all stem from the basic group called Gosanke. Gosanke means three families, or the three biggest things in a group. The Gosanke group of koi includes Kohaku, Sanke, and Showa. It’s likely you’ve heard these terms when selecting fish at your local koi retailer. The grand champions of koi shows almost always come from the Gosanke group. All other varieties of koi come from these three koi. Let’s learn a little more about these three basic and important koi varieties.


There’s a saying that “Everything begins and ends with Kohaku.” This is because all other varieties of Japanese koi come from the Kohaku. In addition, most people choose a Kohaku as their first koi. Then they branch out to other varieties, and eventually come back to Kohaku for its simple beauty.

  • Koh means red and Haku means white.
  • Kohaku is a two-colored koi with a white body and red markings.
  • The separated sections of red on the koi are called steps.
  • Two-step Kohaku has two separated sections and is known as Nidan.
  • Three-step Kohaku is known as Sandan.
  • Four-step Kohaku is known as Yondan.


Kohaku Koi - Japanese Koi in the Gosanke family




Sanke is short for Taisho Sanshoku or Taisho Sanke, and all three terms are used interchangeably. “Sanke” means “three colors” in Japanese.

  • Sanke koi have three colors of red, white, and black.
  • The body is white with red (hi) and black (sumi) markings.
  • Sumi on the Sanke is spotted (whereas it appears banded on Showa).
  • Sanke koi were developed during the era of the Taisho emperor, 1912-1926.
  • Sanke koi will not have any black markings on its head and this is the easiest way to identify them from Showa koi.


Taisho Sanke Japanese Koi




Showa is short for Showa Sanshoku or Showa Sanke, and all three are used interchangeably.

  • Showa koi have three colors of red, black, and white.
  • The Showa koi’s body is black, and the black markings are banded as opposed to spotted like the Sanke koi.
  • Showa koi were developed during the era of the Showa emperor, 1926-1989.
  • Showa look like Sanke but have black markings on their head.
  • When you look inside the mouth of the Showa, you’ll see that the bottom of the mouth is bluish. This is another way to identify Showa.
  • Showa koi are black when born and develop their color as they mature.


Showa Koi Fish



When looking at markings on any koi, the sharper their delineation, the more valuable they are. “Sashi” refers to the leading or top edge of color (step) on the koi. “Kiwa” is the back end of color (step). And if you have a koi with red lips, that’s called “kuchibeni.”

Now that you know a little more about the Gosanke, or big three variety of koi, you’re better equipped to identify the Japanese koi swimming in your pond. Keep in mind, there are over a hundred varieties of koi, but they all come from this basic group of Kohaku, Sanke, and Showa.