All That Glitters Is Goldfish

“Do you think it’s worse to be in the tank or on the plate?” I asked my fair-haired cousin Karin, who, along with her friend Sabine, was visiting Tokyo from Germany for the first time.

“That’s debatable,” Karin replied grimacing.

As I pushed through the blanket of gawkers to take my turn staring in awe at the pulsating glass bowl brimming with goldfish, I curled my toes to alleviate foot pain caused by wearing the wrong shoes for the good-ole’-fashioned line-standing preceding entry to the event. My friend, Junko, had warned me the Art Aquarium exhibit might be crowded, but my feet–and my stomach–had not been prepared for the hour-long line snaking through Tokyo’s Mitsukoshimae Station. On the bright side, there had been plenty of time for me to run off and grab water, tea, and taiyaki for the others. What more appropriate treat than a fish-shaped, sweet-bean-filled waffle while queuing for a goldfish exhibit?

Even after Junko had sent me the link for the exhibit, I had no idea if we’d be seeing pictures of fish or perhaps fish drawing pictures; all I knew was it would be uniquely Japanese–perfect for my visiting guests. Karin was on the same page. “Ooh! It’s so colorful. Like manga. Let’s go!” she said.

So we went.

After an hour in the long but self-policing and orderly line, we were almost in. “How many people?” the gatekeeper asked.

“Yo-nin,” (“four people”) I replied.

She handed me a red card, pointed toward the station hallway, and sent us on our way with about 25 people trailing behind. Behind me. Who sends 25 Japanese people to follow a white girl through a Tokyo station? She hadn’t even trusted me to speak Japanese, but now she believed I could read the signs directing us to the fish? Anyone else in the group, save for my European guests, perhaps, was more qualified to lead this group than I. We did fine with the first few signs, following twists and turns through a maze of doorways and escalators, but on the second floor I became distracted by a Mexican restaurant. Margaritas, anyone?

We were quickly lost, us along with 10 Japanese strangers.

The strangers finally wised up and took the lead, guiding us up another escalator and into a ballroom serving as the exhibit gift shop. Finally, the line led us into a large, dark, crowded room. Ambient sound punctuated by pulsing light created a chill nightclub atmosphere. Instead of leather-clad dancers in cages, the entertainment was colorful goldfish in artfully decorated bowls of varying shapes and sizes. The hallway leading to the first exhibits was decorated with information about the history of kingyo (goldfish) art, but a camera-carrying tide pushed me forward and prevented me from reading any of it. I thought later I’d learn more on the internet, but all I’ve been able to glean is that goldfish were imported to Japan in the 1500s, their popularity grew, and in the 1800s a culture of breeding, collectors, and connoisseurs emerged. The history of live goldfish art is still a mystery to me.

The exhibit was, indeed, a one-of-a-kind, uniquely Japanese experience. It was colorful, crazy, and crowded, just like Shinjuku at night. Its beauty was unsurpassed, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a dark side. Was this beauty, perhaps, born of great suffering? The tanks were spotless; I wondered whether the fish were fed regularly and what became of them when the exhibit ended. Did the lighting, sound, and traffic cause them distress? I’ve seen videos of fish at barrier reefs that all seemed comfortable in highly populated areas, but was being trapped in a bowl with potential predators staring endlessly a different story altogether?

I care about a stupid goldfish.

It’s obvious to me by the popularity of the event that Tokyo isn’t remotely concerned with goldfish welfare. But, really, who is? I mean, everyone’s heard that fish have a memory of three seconds or less, so what do they care about living in a small, over-populated space?

As usual, I popped on Netflix to keep me company as I uploaded a few event photos to my blog. I happened upon a rerun of Mythbusters, a science show in which engineers Jamie and Adam set out to test and validate or dispell popular myths. On this particular episode, they were coincidentally testing the memory of fish to see if the three-second memory belief was actually a fact. They worked to train fish to swim through an obstacle course, and over a period of about a month and a half, they proved that the fish could, indeed, learn to navigate the course at a given time with increasing speed. A renown researcher confirmed that learning patterns showed a capacity for memory, therefore busting that myth.

The most profound statement of the episode was something like, “That fish have a three-second memory is either true or it’s something people tell themselves so they don’t feel bad about keeping fish in a small tank.”

The researcher confirmed that tanked fish regularly suffered, in fact, from boredom. So, perhaps being part of these art-a-fish-all displays is more exciting for a fish than just living in a tank in someone’s house? That thought made me feel a little better, but I can’t help wondering whether maybe fish shouldn’t be tanked at all. They’re not like dogs; you can’t take them to a local pool to play with other fish. But perhaps they’re more like dogs than we ever expected in that they can think, learn, and remember. That’s better than a few dumb dogs I’ve met!

The tank or the plate?

Is it better to be alive and suffering than not alive at all? Is there a third option: “neither”? Or perhaps a fourth option: “alive, a good life, and then a swift death”? I’ve been thinking about animals a lot lately, as I slowly try to improve my current standing as the world’s worst vegetarian (with a forkful of chicken hanging out of my mouth). At the very least, I think animals, be they for food or for art, deserve our respect for their sacrifice. I’m sharing Art Aquarium pictures here so the suffering–if there was any suffering–was not in vain.

They were beautiful. They were elegant. They were dignified. They had no choice.

(The better photos were taken off Google; the worse ones were from my camera.)

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