Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


When Fish Fly by John Yokoyama


Rating: (Highly Recommended)




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I was prepared to dislike John Yokoyam’s new book, When Fish Fly: Lessons for Creating a Vital and Energized Workplace - From the World Famous Pike Place Fish Market. I didn’t expect that the lessons of work approaches from a retail fish business would make so much sense. There are several reasons for recommending this book highly: the psychological foundation of the lessons is sound; Yokoyama underwent personal transformation; culture matters so much that seeing how this small business internalized a vision can be a useful model for others.


Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter IV, “Changing Yourself First: Breaking Free from the Net,” pp. 57-63:




Nothing would have changed around here if I hadn’t changed first. For many years, I was content to do things the way I always had. I was cynical and angry, and I didn’t realize that unless I let go of those feelings, we were doomed. New and creative ideas were not of interest to me. Hard work and tried-and-true methods were what I thought produced results. My rigidity, burnout, and negativity kept us stuck. It wasn’t until I re-created myself that a powerful vision to make a difference could appear. As I became more open to the ideas of my cowork­ers, our business began to achieve significant results and our vision was realized. It is amazing how many breakthrough ideas surfaced from the creative beings on my staff in support of our vision once I opened up to accepting those ideas. Take, for exam­ple, the introduction of computers to our workplace and the cre­ation of our website.


I am not a very technologically inclined guy. If it were up to me, we would have never gotten computers at Pike Place Fish. It’s not that I have any problems with computers—I’ve known that they have value, but I, personally, have had very little interest in them. One of my former managers became very excited about computers after having gotten one of his own. I would talk to him about that interest, mainly because I cared about him. He kept sharing with me ways in which the computer could help us at the market. At one point, he suggested that we get one. I asked him to let me know the cost and benefits of a computer, and then sug­gested bringing it up at a future staff meeting. ‘While the decision would ultimately be mine, given the expense, I wanted to have the benefit of each team member’s input. After our discussion, I told my manager to make the purchase. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you much about that computer other than the fact that my computer-oriented manager was excited, but we started to notice immediate benefits. We began to get better control of our inven­tory and to organize our shipping. Prior to getting the computer, we were stuffing each month’s shipping receipts into plastic bags.


As my manager saw more applications for computers, includ­ing automating our FedEx tracking system, we continued to stay open to his requests for additional computers, and now we have three computers in the work area alone. At one point, the man­ager came to me and suggested that we needed a website. ‘While I personally would never have thought about the importance of such a thing, I encouraged him to once again research the idea and present it at a staff meeting. The team helped me appreciate the benefits of e-commerce, and I handed over $10,000 to a website designer and let my managers and the team create the site. That initial expense was not paid back in the first year, but we decided to revamp the website with an additional $10,000 investment. It took us four years before I could fully appreciate that the website was a good investment. Now, the website is an awesome vehicle for sales of Pike Place Fish worldwide.


The old me would have been grumpy and resistant to the idea of having a computer around. While not an excuse, that re­sistance, cynicism, and anger were a result of my early life experi­ences. My story begins in a Japanese American internment camp, but it ends with ownership of World Famous Pike Place Fish. It proves that everyone can make a contribution. There is nothing unusually special about me. I am truly an ordinary man. I have no exceptional talents. I never went to college. I have struggled with reading most of my life and really don’t like to read much other than the sports page. I am proof that people are creative and powerful even without superior intelligence, exceptional business skills, or unusual luck. At times, when talking to audi­ences at business schools or major corporate conventions, I find it odd that as a high school graduate, I stand before these accom­plished people to speak about business success. Then again, who else could tell the story of World Famous Pike Place Fish?





My personal journey began June 25, 1940, in Seattle, Washing­ton. I was the first of five children born to Roy and Helen Yokoyama. My father immigrated to Seattle from Japan, whereas my mother, also of Japanese descent, was born in Seattle. On February 19, 1942, two months after the bombing of Pearl Har­bor, our family was greatly affected when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. That order ultimately led to the nationwide incarceration of 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. We were among those Americans. My mother, father, sister, and I were rounded up and taken to a processing center, the Tule Lake Relocation Camp, in Tule Lake, California.


Tule Lake was one of sixteen assembly centers where Japa­nese Americans were temporarily placed during World War II. At their high point, most centers housed between 3,000 and 7,000 evacuees. Usually, the centers were modified racetracks, fair­grounds, and livestock arenas. These locations were selected because they had built-in resources for water, electricity, and sewage.


Tule Lake was one of the most unsettled camps. It was com­mon for prisoners there to hold protest demonstrations and strikes. Because of this, Tule Lake was made a “segregation camp” and was used to hold prisoners from other camps who refused to take the loyalty oath to the United States.


After arriving at an assembly center like Tule Lake, families were assigned to an “apartment.” These apartments were often windowless rooms with partitioned walls and low ceilings. Because the rooms were often converted animal stalls, the odors of the prior animal residents remained. The “family apartment” was a space consisting of one room and was supposed to have cots, blankets, mattresses, a bare lightbulb, and a stove. However, there were often not enough of these supplies for everyone. Most prisoners left the assembly centers like Tule Lake in about 100 days and were sent to other camps.


I remember leaving Tule Lake on a long train ride to our next encampment, Minidoka Relocation Center in Hunt, Idaho.


A sign at the present-day site of the Minidoka camp is fairly descriptive of our experience there:


Victims of wartime hysteria, these people, two-thirds of whom were United States citizens, lived a bleak, humiliating life in tar paper barracks behind barbed wire and under armed guard.



In Minidoka, our family lived in a camp that was patrolled by guards and surrounded by barbed wire fences. It was divided into “blocks” consisting of twelve to fourteen barracks, a mess hail, bathroom facilities, a laundry, and a recreation hail. Each barrack was divided into four rooms, about twenty feet by sixteen feet. Generally, one room housed one family. I remember barracks being built from boards covered with tar paper.


We did not have running water at Minidoka. Water was available only at the laundry or bathrooms. Families ate together in the mess hail and bathed in community bathhouses. Food was a major issue in the camps. Mess halls were overcrowded. The meals were mostly dried fish, hot dogs, rice, macaroni, and pick­led vegetables. It was a vast departure from what my mother would have prepared at home. There were shortages of meat and milk. Several camp administrators were accused of stealing food and selling it for personal profit.


Minidoka was a harsh place. Most of the employed internees worked within the camps. They were used to clean or assist the camp administration. Many evacuees were given jobs to support the American war efforts. Other internees worked outside of the camps as contract laborers on local farms. My father was one of the contract laborers. One day while out working, my dad caught a jackrabbit and brought it home to me as a pet. This was the first time I remember my dad ever bringing me a gift. I was very excited about having a pet. That night, we kept him on the porch and tied him so that he wouldn’t hop away. The next morning, I ran out to play with my rabbit, but it was gone. I went looking for it and was devastated when I found it being eaten by a dog.


Another example of the strain I felt at Minidoka occurred at Christmas. The camp officials kindly arranged a visit from Santa Claus. Unfortunately, I didn’t know anything about Santa Claus. From my perspective, I was living in a place with all Japanese people when suddenly a large man with white hair and a white beard approached me. I dived under a table and hid there.


For a good portion of my life, I continued to hide. I hid inside the emotional wounds I sustained in the prison camps. These wounds were worsened by the treatment I received back in Seattle upon my return at age four. As if camp had not been dif­ficult enough, our return to Seattle was even worse.


We lived in a housing project in Seattle upon our return from Minidoka until I was in junior high school. The other kids in the project would often call me and my family “dirty Japs” and “Jap bastards.” I took their comments literally and thought they meant that I was unclean. This confused me, because I took a bath every day. I felt dirty, undesirable, and inferior to Caucasians. However, I do remember two occasions where Caucasians unex­pectedly accepted me. When I was a kid in the projects, a white female store clerk called me “hon” when I was there buying a candy bar. It made me feel good. Later in life, while in high school, a popular Caucasian girl took a sip from my bottle of soda. It was striking to me that she would put her lips on a bottle where my lips had been.


Throughout my life, I was cautious in the way I acted around certain people. I didn’t want to be called a “dirty Jap” anymore. I will never understand why people treated me so badly just because I was Japanese. But their words reinforced my feeling that as a Japanese person, I was less valuable than a Caucasian. Through much of my life, I feared what people were thinking of me.


By adulthood, I had become a very bitter and angry man. I justified my bitterness by saying, “How else could a person be, when at such a young age he was the target of such prejudice?” From the experiences I had at camp and the things that were said to me afterward, a deep inferiority complex was born.


Yokoyama’s story is not yours, nor is his business like yours. When Fish Fly will inspire you to reflect on yourself and your workplace. Like me, you’re likely to come away from this book with the feeling if he and the fishmongers can do this much, imagine how much more I can do.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

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