Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Akira Otani Interview
Narrator: Akira Otani
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii
Date: March 3, 2011
Densho ID: denshovh-oakira-01-0007

<Begin Segment 7>

AO: And eventually that developed into a wholesale business. And then he branched off into becoming involved in the fish auction operation.

TI: So when they first... so back then they had a fish auction, can you... were you ever working down there? Can you describe how that worked?

AO: No, they had auctions way, way back, many years ago, in fact they had several, five, six different auction companies independently operating through representing their own fishermen. But naturally it was so spread out that even the bars got spread out so that it developed to a point where what became my father's whole market building became the central point for one of the bigger auction companies to be located and from which more fish was being sold to so-called middlemen and then from other locations.

TI: So there's different auction places, now if you're a fisherman, did you always go to the same auction person or did they go to different ones?

AO: If you were a fisherman, the first thing you'd be concerned about is what kind of prices you're going to be paid, and how soon am I going to get paid for the fish that is sold. So that I think was more or less the key to my dad's thinking and operations and even today stands as the key point of our fish auction company which is we give the best service to all the fishermen, fishing boats and so forth and the main thing is we pay the fishermen the very day on which his fish, or their fish is sold to so-called middlemen.

TI: So back then that wasn't common?

AO: That was not common, that was not common and so sometimes some fishermen were dissatisfied, they would bring fish directly to so-called restaurants and hotels but they had a hard time, number one, getting collection and they were having a hard time getting so-called fair price. So eventually what developed is something like what our... but our, my father started... he didn't start the auction company's operations as such because there were many other auction companies all splintered, you know, little ones here and there. But my dad had in between along the way gone to Japan and had seen the large fish auction operations in Tokyo and so forth. And his idea was to develop something along the same line to auction off the fish representing different fishing boats, selling at auction and whenever it's an auction, and it's different people, the middlemen bidding, you know, depending on their need and quantity they required. So that developed into the best prices being offered by the different buyers and therefore the bidding takes place and eventually it came to a point where the settlement had to be made for the fish sold. So on the one hand, you had the fishermen who want their money for the fish sold and other side you got the fish buyers, the middlemen who bought the fish, so collection had to be made by... from the buyers and payments had to be made to the fishermen. So that is the key to, I think my dad's idea to do the best possible job, number one, get the best possible prices for the fishermen, number two, make sure the fishermen got a fair price and got paid for the products they sold.

TI: So it was pretty business savvy because he understood that if the fishermen, you know, the fishermen who had the fish came to his place then it would grow and the way he would do this would be to make sure they got paid right away. But then by having a bigger auction business, the prices would go up also because more middlemen would be there so that's... it seems so basic in a sense.

AO: Correct, it's basic but it's very hard to carry out and accomplish, you know, because in between even today you find some fishermen sometimes feel they might be dissatisfied with whatever prices they might get but you see, if you were to look at our fish auction operation, you'd find that on the bigger fish like the tunas and the swordfishes and the marlins and the other kind of fish, the larger fish are all sold individually. And the smaller fish, the bottom fish, the opakapaka, the snappers and so forth, they might be sold in small batches at a time. But especially on the tunas, each individual tuna depending on the quality, how much fat content, the freshness and so forth, you can get a variation in price, say even today you might have whole round, a good tuna with a lot of fat might go at auction for fifteen dollars a pound and a tuna that's not good, no color, doesn't look so fresh, would maybe sell for a dollar a pound, so you could have this great difference in price. So the fishermen realized that if they get good fish and they take better care of it, they get a good price then they don't take care of the fish and it's poor quality, then naturally the middlemen will not bid very, too much of high price for their fish. So there you have it, you know.

TI: So I would think as a fisherman, you know, they would understand that. That it's really not just someone... it's whatever the market will give them, I mean, it's --

AO: Well, it's common sense. Every person would want a better price for his product, whatever product he's selling.

TI: Yeah, but it's smart too because then you're right, the fishermen understanding this would take better care of their catch in terms of, you know, preserving it or getting it to the markets as fast as they can so it's fresh.

AO: Well, even today our people still have a hard time convincing some of these different fishermen. We have fishermen come from different nationalities. At one time we had a lot of Japanese doing the long line fishing but today we don't have even a single Japanese fisherman. It's mostly the Caucasian from the mainland, we have Vietnamese fishermen, we have Korean fishermen, local Hawaiian fishermen so all these people, naturally they're trying to earn the best living they can. So number one, they try to catch as much fish as they can, number two, they try to get as best a price for their products and number three, of course, when they sold it they want their money right away. So that's the key on which we operate today our company. And this is why even though others, like the article will tell you, ours is the only fresh fish operation where people actually, the middlemen buyers, see, look, touch the fish and paid for the fish, the same as they do in Japan. Ours is the only one in the whole United States. There are no other, you know, operations like that in the whole United States.

TI: Yeah, when I go to Japan I always love to go to the Tsukiji, you know, it's such a fascinating operation to watch it.

AO: See my dad somewhere along the line had gotten to become good friends with certain Japanese people and one of the many he befriended was the president of Taiyo Gyogyo and at one time that was one of the biggest fishing companies in the world. But the thing is through contact with people like that, learning and being taught and following suggestions and so forth, this was how he was able to develop his own business.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2011 Densho. All Rights Reserved.