by Pamela Spindola, California USA
Images from the Spindola personal collection, Modern
Nishikigoi by T. Kuroki, published by Shuji Fujita, Japan,
1991, and "Nichirin" magazine, Japan
Click images to enlarge
In simple English, the Sanke (sahn-kay) is a white
koi with large red patches over which there are smaller black
accents. The Japanese word "san" means three, thus
the Sanke is a tri-colored koi. It is the second of the top three
best known and depicted varieties of koi called the "Gosanke"
< Kohaku (red and white koi | Sanke (red and white
with black accents) >
This variety is known by several other names. Taisho Sanke was
named after an era in Japanese history in the early 1900's when
this koi variety was in the infancy of its development. In some
writings, the hobbyist will see this variety called Taisho Sanshoku
(Tie-show Sahn show- koo). Again this term emphasizes
the three colors. I can easily remember how confused I was when
I started in this hobby with all the foreign words and want to
spare you some of the difficulty! However, some Japanese terminology
The Sanke is basically a white koi with red patches, following
the guidelines of the Kohaku and then has the addition of black
accent marks. As discussed previously all factors to appreciate
a good Kohaku must be existent in this variety: a good healthy
conformation, a richness of color, good skin quality, and a pleasing
The white body is called the "shiroji" (sheer-ro-gee)
which sets off the pattern. It is the canvas for the masterpiece.
The white in a "perfect koi" is homogenous with no
shadows. Sometimes a koi will have a yellowish cast, especially
in the head area, which is not as desirable. On a young koi,
many times the white has a bluish cast which usually turns to
white as the koi matures. If the white has a pink cast it usually
means that there is red pigment coming in or leaving. Remember,
these hybrid koi are changeable, sometimes to our chagrin and
other times to our good fortune!
koi from Japan
The red or "hi" (hee) must be of a consistent color
having a depth so that no white shows between the scales. There
are many shades of red from a dark purple-red to a bright persimmon.
In a young koi, the "hi" is lighter and usually tightens
and becomes deeper as the koi matures. The line definition between
the red and the white color must be sharp and clean cut. On the
leading edge of the red pattern, there may be a bleeding of color
due to the red scale being below the white scale in front. This
is known as "sashi". In the show world, a koi with
sashi one scale in width is acceptable. Anything beyond that
gives the koi a messy appearance. The pattern appears blurry.
On the trailing edge of the color patch the division of the two
colors should be sharp. It is known as the "kiwa" (kee-wah).
If the edge is straight and knifelike it is called "kamisori"
(ka-mee-sor-ee). If it is scalloped and follows the shape of
the scales, it is known as "maruzome" (maahr-ru-zoh-may).
Much is written about the third color, the black accent called
"sumi" (soo-mee). It should be patent leather
black, lacquer-like in gloss. The black should be so thick that
none of the underlying colors can be seen through the black.
Some black spots have a cast of blue, and others are a bit grey
but the most desirable is the shiny ink black sumi. These variances
are due to different lineages of the Sanke variety.
Black sumi accents have been compared to stepping stones leading
the eye from the head to the tail. Depending on the genetics
of the koi, the sumi spots can be rather small and scattered
or large and bold.
At any rate, the edge of the black pattern must be sharp and
clearly defined. It is believed that the black accent on the
white background is more pleasing and rare. It is known as "tsubo
sumi" (tsoo-bow soo-mee). If the black is on the
red it is known as "kasane sumi" ( ka-sahn-nay
Standards have been written and implemented to judge the worth
of a koi. I realize that many hobbyists buy a koi which pleases
them regardless of the standards exhibited. However, I think
the hobbyist should be aware of the elements which make a koi
If the koi has one pronounced patch on the head which does
not cover the eyes in addition to hi markings on the body it
is known as a maruten sanke (mah-roo-ten sahn-kay) and
often is very beautiful. If the koi has a predominance of hi
pattern and very little white background, it is known as an "aka
sanke" (ah-kah sahn- kay). "Aka" is another word
for the color red.
The pattern should be of a pleasing shape on the head not extending
below the eyes. The most common is the "kutsubera"
(koo-tsoo-ber-ah) or horseshoe pattern. However, there are artistic
exceptions to these rules. A very famous koi is called the "crown
sanke" for its interesting head pattern which does not conform
to the prescribed standards but is so very beautiful. Sometimes
the hi will go over one eye but if this imbalance is artistic
with the rest of the pattern it is not only overlooked but very
appreciated for its uniqueness!
At the left is an award winning Sanke from an All-Japan show
in 1989. Notice the clarity of the shiroji (white, the clearly
defined edges of the hi [red] patches) and the artistically placed
sumi (black) spots. One fin has only one stripe and the other
none. This is overlooked as it seems to balance with the overall
pattern of the koi.
If the red covers the entire face it is called "menkaburi"
(men-kah-bur-ee) and is very seldom attractive. If there is "hi"
on the mouth, it appears as lipstick and is referred to as "kuchibeni"
(koo-chee-ben-nee). "Kuchi" is mouth and "beni"
is another word for the color red. It sometimes will balance
the pattern and appears cute on some koi. There should not be
any sumi or black spots on the head.
The fins, both the pectoral and the dorsal may be completely
white or have a few (no more than three) black stripes, "tejima'
(tay-jee-mah). This is a characteristic of the Sanke variety
and some say it indicates the stability of quality of the sumi.
See the award winner from Japan above right.
There are other versions of the Sanke such as scaleless or "doitsu"
(doy-tsoo). I am including a picture of a small scaleless Sanke
with this column so you can see the clarity of color and the
sharpness of the kiwa. With the absence of scales the colors
are brighter and more dramatic.
Another variety of Sanke is kin gin rin or diamond scale (keen-geen-reen).
The scales shine like little diamonds as seen in the picture
at the right. We will cover these variations more in depth in
When looking for a young Sanke, look for a pleasing body, a Kohaku
pattern which extends below the lateral line, and has indications
of future strong sumi accents. The challenge is to have all three
colors peak at the same time. When this happens the Sanke is
quite an elegant koi, the white background lustrous and creamy,
the red patches are bold and dramatic, and the lacquer black
spots are the jewelry making the Sanke quite a wonderful sight
in the water!
First in the series
All Koi Are Created Equal!
Featuring the Kohaku Variety
Next in the series
| Utsurimono Shiro,
Hi, y Ki Utsuri