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From goby fish to tilapia fish

It is well-known to everyone that the royal families of Thailand and Japan have a special relationship. Many people know that the tilapia fish in Thailand was an outcome of this relationship. However, few people know that before the tilapia there was also the goby fish. 

His Imperial Majesty Emperor Akihito is a “fisherman” (as in an expert on fish). 

His Imperial Majesty interests in fish led Him to complete His studies in the Faculty of Science.  At that time, He was the Crown Prince of Japan.

Official relations between the two Monarchs began when the Thai Monarch paid a royal visit to Japan in 1963 (27th May - 3rd June) and then invited the Crown Prince of Japan to visit Thailand.  The Crown Prince paid a royal visit to Thailand in December 1964.  At that time, His Majesty the King gave a welcome befitting of His Highness and part of the programme included “observing fishes”.

If you are just skimming through this, you may not give that tidbit much thought, but if you consider for a moment that if the Crown Prince of Japan, a superpower in Asia, paid a royal visit to Thailand for the first time, would we actually invite Him to observe “fishes”?

Anyone would shake their heads. Anyone would find it unthinkable.

He’s visiting for the first time.  We should be holding substantive meetings, discussing affairs of politics and the State and holding a grandiose banquet.  Who would even consider setting a programme to “observe fishes”.

But the King of Thailand did, and it was an idea that was the most “outside the box” that I have ever come across.

People of this generation often talk about new and different ideas.  Weare tired of getting stuck with or clinging on to the things around us; tired of this and that.  It is time to go outside the box.

Did you know who has genuinely been “outside the box”, let alone thinking outside the box for more than 50 years?

If a person who likes fish is visiting, then of course one should take that person to observe fishes.

It is the most audacious idea imaginable, considering that host and visitor are both Monarchs.

Nobody actually knows what His Majesty the King of Thailand was thinking.  However, if I may offer my analysis. His Majesty may be thinking back to history because someone has done it before, and it became successful.

Harkening back to June 1890, the Crown Prince of Russia accepted the invitation of King Rama V to visit Siam (as Thailand was then known).  This was the first time that a high-ranking royal from a major European power visited Thailand.

At that time, it was the most extravagant welcome to have ever been organised, and it included the “Last Elephant Round-up” involving over 300 wild elephants, which left a lasting impression on the Russian Crown Prince who would later ascend to the throne as Tsar Nicolas II.  When Siam later faced a major crisis as all its neighbors fell under the colonial yolk and foreign powers were gearing to carve up the country, King Rama V decided to visit Europe to demonstrate that Siam was already modern and not a barbarian nation.  The only country that welcomed us with goodwill was Russia.

It was only when images of King Chulalongkorn seated alongside Tsar Nicolas II appeared in European newspapers that other countries started to accept and welcome His Majesty.  This allowed Siam continued existence to become Thailand today.  That was literally earth-stopping diplomacy, and it came about from “elephants”

Earth-stopping diplomacy happened again from the “fishes” when the King of Thailand took the Crown Prince of Japan to observe fishes at the Museum of Fisheries located at the Faculty of Agriculture, Kasetsart University. Records stated that the Crown Prince was extremely happy. He looked through one display after the other (see photo), including one containing a goby fish.  This species of goby fish was first discovered in Thailand and one of the earliest specimen was studied and kept at this Museum.  That is not exactly remarkable, but there are 2 reasons why it is important:

1) This species of goby fish is named “Mahidol Goby Fish” in honour of His Royal Highness Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, the Father of His Majesty King Bhumibol.

2) This species of goby fish was found and named by Dr. Hugh McCormick Smith.

The Crown Prince of Japan loves fishes with a passion.  When He realized that the goby fish was named after the Father of the King of Thailand, it made such an impression on Him. For those in the field of taxonomy, having ones’ name become a scientific name of an animal species is considered the highest possible honour; especially since that name was cataloged many ages ago in 1953 during a time when our world has yet to progress like today.

The process of naming of animals must be clearly documented.  At the time, Dr. Smith came up with this name because His Majesty’s Father helped facilitate the establishment of Thailand’s fishing industry, includingdonating His personal funds and sending Thais to study overseas in this field so that they can return to teach the next generation.

My second point is Dr. Smith, the expert from America, was engaged by King Rama VI to setup and become the first Director-General of the “Department of the Protection of Aquatic Animals”as Thais had no knowledge in this field.  Dr. Smithwas considered a “top expert” in the field of ichthyology in that era.  Anyone who studies fish must recognize the name Dr. Smith.  Thus, it is not surprising that when the Crown Prince of Japanlooked at this particular display, he exclaimed “Is this the fish that Dr. Smith found?” (There are records about this. I did not make this up.)  And that was the beginning of a lasting impression and led to the personal closeness between the royals; by winning over the heart of the “person who loves fish”.  Later, in 1965, His Majesty requested tilapias from the Crown Prince of Japan.  I really believe that His Majesty foresaw that the people of Thailand needed proteins for the development of body and brain.  However, proteins from other animal meats are too expensive for ordinary people to consume daily.


There is only fish that the people can catch and eat, and Thai people have enjoyed eating fish since ancient times. What they lack is a kind of fish that grows fast, is easy to farm, is suitable for every source of water, and does not interfere with the ecosystem too much.

The tilapia fish has a lot of meat and tastes good. Originating from the River Nile, it is thought to be the most suitable fish. How could His Majesty the King know that it has to be the tilapia fish? The answer lies in understanding who we are talking about. We are talking about one of the greatest savants of our times.

The Crown Prince of Japan presented 50 tilapia fish to His Majesty with great pleasure. Without delay, His Majesty brought them back to Chitralada Palace and raised them there. Those who wondered why His Majesty is considered a great savant should be clear of any doubts now.

A person who can compose almost 50 songs, build and sail a sailboat, implement artificial rainmaking, and is able to propagate the kind of fish nobody can; how should we call that kind of person?  One must not forget that he is the King, with already enormous responsibilities on his hand. A great savant is thus suitable in every sense of the word, and by no means overpraising.

One year later, His Majesty named the Tilapia “Pla Nil’ in Thai, to correspond with its English name (Nilotica – which means fish from the River Nile). Subsequently, His Majesty bestowed 10,000 fish to the Department of Fisheries to be distributed to the public.

Some important dates should be noted here.

The Crown Prince of Japan presented 50 Tilapia fish on 25 March 1965

His Majesty subsequently had 10 fish left. After propagation, 10,000 fish were given to the Department of Fisheries on 17 March 1966

Within the period of less than a year, 10 fish became 10,000 fish (not including the fish that His Majesty had in personal keeping). I do not know how to explain this? Was it a miracle? Or the grace of His Majesty the King?

The story goes that His Majesty refused to eat the Tilapia fish, for the simple reason that “the fish was raised like my own family, how can I eat it?” (wording as told). His Majesty’s grace must have stemmed from the kind deed of ‘raising the fish like his own family”. His Majesty has put in enormous efforts in breeding these fish, like a rich man caring for his valuable fish, thereby enhancing his grace. But this was not the reason His Majesty bred these tilapia fish. Rather, it was because His Majesty intended for these fish to benefit the Thai people. Over 50 years have passed since then, and I do not think any more number is needed to attest to his success. Just walk to your local markets, have you seen tilapia fish being fried or grilled? Are there any other kind of fish cheaper, has so much meat, and was a popular choice amongst the people like the tilapia fish?

Let me add more numbers for clarity sake. Nowadays, Thailand produces over 220,000 tonnes of tilapia fish per year, from over 300,000 fish farms, which have created millions of jobs. Thailand also exports tilapia fish worldwide, generating sizeable income. The tilapia fish is now among the leading exported fish in Thailand.

Let us look at the facts again,

1963   His Majesty paid a royal visit to Japan

1964   The Crown Prince visited Thailand, and visited goby fish farms

1965   50 tilapia fish were requested

1966   10,000 tilapia fish were given to the Department of Fisheries

2016   More than 220,000 tonnes of tilapia fish per year were farmed, which has helped create millions of jobs.

It has now become the best and the cheapest source of protein for the Thai people.

I have often talked about “earth-stopping diplomacy”, but have not had a chance to explain what it means.

Now is the time. “Earth-Stopping Diplomacy” = goby fish = tilapia fish = Thai people have enough to eat = Thai people are employed.

A simple equation. But who is able to think of that?  Fifty years ago, who was able to think that or had such a vision?

When I was a member of the National Reform Committee, it was a very difficult task already having to produce the 20-years National Strategy.

Some might ask how we can look so far ahead. Some said Singapore and Malaysia have already had such plans, and they are far more developed than us. 20 years? More developed than us? 50 years – goby fish – tilapia fish – 66 million population, created by only one man – from start to finish.

Not to mention the close relationship between the two countries. Not to mention the unprecedented circumstance where His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan mourn his close friend of over 50 years – “the man who achieved great success with fishes.”

The success was not in discovering new species of fish, and does not involve expertise in fishery science.

The success was in turning 10 fishes into 220,000 tonnes per year.

Ensuring that fishes and humans are incomparably connected and intertwined. 

I did not intend to write this article to make you cry, because I can no longer continue writing. The ‘global warming’ article has already taken up much of my effort.

I intend to explain clearly why I prostrate myself in showing my respect to the King.

I have never paid respect because I was told to, or because I was taught to. I did not do it because other people did it. I do not respect miracle or supernatural powers

I only respect “the truth”. I prostrate myself out of respect, from the bottom of my heart.

I prostrate myself humbly at His Majesty’s feet because I see clearly what he has done for the Thai people.

The word ‘unbelievable’ has been overused. But for me, this is unbelievable. How could he think of that? How could he achieve that? Unbelievable!

I fell to the ground, filled with sorrow. The man who created the unthinkable deserved full respect.

This is why I cried, from the bottom of my heart. The more I researched, the more I write, the more I know that the loss is too much….too much indeed!

p.s. I have never disrespect the thoughts of others. You are entitled to your own opinion.

But have you eaten tilapia fish by any chance?




Source - This series of articles is intended as a lesson for Kasetsart University students, whom I am going to teach. It comprises 3 series namely, “Global warming”, “From goby fish to tilapia fish”, and “How to catch a fish”

I use ordinary language as using royal vocabularies is not my strong suit. I also intend to make it easy to read.

You are more than welcomed to share this article. But if is for publishing, please contact me first as each of the story requires considerable amount of time, and may bring more tears.

Dr. Ton Tamrongnawasawasdi

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