Yoshi Yokoyama ーBorn in Sendai in 1946 as the third son of a doctor, Yokoyama grew up in Fuchu City, Tokyo, from the time he was in middle school. After graduating from Nihon University’s College of Science and Technology, he found work with a leading oil company, then lived in Los Angeles from 1973-76. Yokoyama used his overseas experience and launched a company in 1976 in Tokyo that provides support for exchange students and information about the U.S. (known today as EDICM Corp). In 1981, he moved to Seattle with his wife Keiko, and in November of the same year, opened Shogun House Restaurant, then five years later, I Love Sushi. In 1989, he partnered with a company that sells Eastern medical equipment, Nikken Inc., to build a global sales network out of Irvine, California. He purchased renowned restaurant Shiro’s Sushi in 2007 and opened sushi Kaiseki restaurant Kusakabe in San Francisco’s financial district in 2014.
Interview by Misa Murohashi, Translated by Bruce Rutledge
Be a “Transition Person”
Sushi comes to Bellevue
A long-established restaurant, I Love Sushi attracts both Japanese and American patrons. It originally opened in 1986 as Bellevue’s first sushi restaurant on NE 8th Street, and eventually moved to the current location and changed the name to I Love Sushi on Lake Bellevue. “The moment I crossed Lake Washington and entered beautiful Bellevue, I just knew that this was the place for me. I thought, ‘I’m going to make it here.’ It was such a powerful instinct that it sent shivers down my spine,” said restaurant owner and president Yoshi Yokoyama.
Sitting down to a conversation with Yokoyama, I was struck by his down-to-earth demeanor and charismatic personality.
“At the time, I visited the office of the Bellevue mayor, Cary Bozeman, without an appointment. He agreed to meet with me on the condition that the meeting be limited to 15 minutes. I said to him, ‘I love your city. What can I do for this city?’ He responded, ‘Why don’t you open a Japanese restaurant? We do not have one yet.’ So I said, ‘Yes, sir. I will do it,’ and went to the bank to negotiate and procure a loan.”
It was 1981 and Yokoyama was only 35 years old. He had no money, no restaurant experiences, no local acquaintances, no credits; he had nothing to open a restaurant. Even so, the Seattle branch of Tokyo Bank on 3rd Street gave him a $100,000 loan.
“I’m the type of person who can’t wait once I’ve decided to do something. Miraculously, I was able to raise money, so I am very grateful to the people at the bank who decided to extend me the loan.”
In November of that year, Yokoyama opened Bellevue’s first Japanese restaurant, Shogun House. On the other side of Lake Washington in Seattle, Japanese restaurants like Bush Garden, Nikko and Mikado Restaurant were thriving.
“A lot of people told me, people in Bellevue aren’t the type who would go to a Japanese restaurant, but I was so happy when I was able to open the restaurant, I had no time to worry,” Yokoyama said, recalling those early days. He summoned his chef friends from Los Angeles, and they battled their way through trials and errors.
Three and a half years after opening Shogun House, Yokoyama was faced with another opportunity. A 23-year-old Japanese sushi chef joined Shogun House. His sushi became an instant hit. We are referring to the owner chef of Kiku Sushi, Tadashi Sato. This would soon lead to the opening of Bellevue’s first restaurant dedicated to sushi. Sato loved sushi first and foremost, which was how I Love Sushi came to be. “Most Japanese thought the name was weird, but the Americans liked it,” said Yokoyama. “It sounded so much like the iconic American TV show ‘I Love Lucy’ that most Americans laughed.” He sold Shogun House to open I Love Sushi, and got the nod from the new owners of Shogun House to open a sushi restaurant in the city as long as it didn’t serve sukiyaki or tempura. “I don’t think they believed a sushi-only establishment would succeed at the time, but I knew for certain then that the age of sushi was definitely upon us.”
“The moment I crossed Lake Washington and entered beautiful Bellevue,
I just knew that this was the place for me.
‘I’m going to make it here.’
It was such an intuitive moment that it sent shivers down my spine.”
Transforming intentions into reality
Currently, Yokoyama oversees I Love Sushi on Lake Bellevue, Seattle’s famous Shiro’s Sushi and San Francisco’s high-end sushi kaiseki restaurant Kusakabe. Yokoyama has also achieved success in areas outside of the restaurant business, such as education and medical equipment. Where does Yokoyama’s energy come from? Growing up in a family of doctors, Yokoyama said he studied really hard as a young student so that he too could become a doctor. “But then, my grades started to fall pretty rapidly in high school,” he said. “It was so stressful. I studied every day under the pressure that I must pass the exam to enter the local top medical school. Because of stress-related colitis, I lost my appetite and was always going to the doctor. One day, I got so sick of all the medication I had to take for my condition that I tossed them all out into the river near Koganei Hospital. I was roaming around town, when I was saved by a monk.”
Completely emaciated and exhausted, Yokoyama walked past a temple in Kokubunji when a head monk of the temple approached him and asked, “What happened?” As Yokoyama bared his soul, he noticed that he began to feel better. He was invited in to the temple and joined other monks-in-training to clean the temple grounds and tend the fields. “I was served a vegetarian meal of soup and three simple plates – Ichijyu Sansai (一汁三菜), and worked really hard in the afternoon. Then the second morning after I arrived at the temple, I awoke to a tremendous amount of energy rising from within me. It was a kind of energy I had never experienced before.” Yokoyama told the monk that he was ready to go home, and so he left. He confronted his parents and declared, “I am not becoming a doctor. I will forge my own career.”
From that point on, Yokoyama’s life would be guided by this new fountain of energy, driven by his interest in people and those with whom he wanted to connect. He was so moved by a book by Hidemasa Kimura, a professor who was the center in the creation of the YS-11, Japan’s first domestic commercial aircraft after World War II. Yokoyama entered Nihon University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering to specialize in the study of aeronautics just so he could be in the presence of Professor Kimura. In 1968, as the student movement flared up and he could no longer attend classes, he read and was greatly moved by a book by John Paul Getty, who amassed tremendous wealth in the oil business. Thinking that joining Mitsubishi Oil Company, which had a business partnership with the Getty Oil Company, would get him closer to Getty himself, Yokoyama made his move. “I thought that if I worked at Mitsubishi, I would be able to meet Getty. That said, the hires were all from elite universities. I kept going to the headquarters in Toranomon, and finally on the fourth day, I was noticed by the manager of the lubricating oil division. After I feverishly communicated my passion to him, I was hired on the spot.”
He enjoyed and worked very hard in his first position as a sales engineer. But after five years, Yokoyama would quit the job and move to the U.S. While working for Mitsubishi Oil, he spent a lot of time in the lounge of Kobe’s Rokkosan Hotel. The throwaway words of a Greek ship captain he met at the lounge would change the direction of Yokoyama’s life. The captain told him, “You should go overseas.” His colleagues, bosses, clients and the many business owners outside of his business circle came together and contributed a whopping figure at the time of 2.5 million yen. Yokoyama took that money and traveled to Los Angeles. It was 1973, and Yokoyama was 27 years old.
In LA, Yokoyama went to an English conversation school, where more drama occurred. “The tuition was $120 a month at the time. It was really expensive. But the teacher had the students read the newspaper while he took a nap. I woke him up.” The teacher’s response to the complaining Yokoyama seemed to come out of left field. “He pulled a check for $100 out of his pocket and said, ‘This is all I’ve received in two weeks. I have to work three jobs, so I’m tired.’ I ran up against his complaint!” The teacher was a Jewish-American man three years older than Yokoyama. After class, they went to a nearby bar. There, the two of them, both broke, hit it off and decided to form their own school.
Yokoyama opened an ESL (English as a second language) school inside the Sawyer School on Westwood Boulevard near UCLA. Unlike other ESL schools, Yokoyama’s school could issue visas since it was inside of the business school. The school became popular and enrolled a lot of students from Japan. Three years later, he returned to Japan to establish his new company which is now called EDICM Corp. When he went to borrow money to open the new school, he managed to meet some heavyweights of the Japanese business world. One of them was the founder of Panasonic, Konosuke Matsushita. “Konosuke was different from the others. He listened intently as I explained my passion and business plans. At the end, he said, ‘I love listening to young people. I always learn from them. Thank you very much.’ He was very polite. It was like he sucked up my soul and I couldn’t ask for the loan!”
From the many episodes of Yokoyama’s early life, a pattern emerges of him deciding on a goal and hustling to execute it no matter the odds. “You can materialize your thoughts. But first, you have to think them,” Yokoyama says with a voice of authority. “We must make use of the wonderful gift of imagination and will unique only to human beings!”
“You can materialize your thoughts. But first, you have to think them. We must make use of the wonderful gift of imagination and will unique only to human beings!”
Explaining the essence of being Japanese to the young generation
“Raising young Japanese people to be curious about the world, strong-willed and honest-hearted so that they can live in a carefree fashion.” That is the mission statement of the predecessor of the Japan information support center, EDICM Corp. This is something that Yokoyama always keeps close to his heart.
Yokoyama met Dr. Covey in 1989 and has respected Dr. Covey as his mentor since then. Here are quotes from his famous book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
“As someone once observed, “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children – one is roots, the other wings. Among other things, I believe that giving “wings to our children and others means empowering them with the freedom to rise above negative scripting that had been passed down to us. I believe it means becoming what my friend and associate, Dr. Terry Warner, calls a “transition” person. Instead of transferring those scripts to the next generation, we can change them. And we can do it in a way that will build relationships in the process.”
“I want young people all over the world to become “Transition Persons,” says Yokoyama. This May, I Love Sushi on Lake Bellevue added a new vice president Hiroyuki Kawasaki from Japan. Kawasaki operates seven pharmacies in Hyogo Prefecture and two Japanese restaurants in Sapporo. He is 24 years younger than Yokoyama, which makes them both born in the Year of the Dog. For Yokoyama, who doesn’t have children, the 48-year-old Kawasaki is the successor. The soft-spoken Kawasaki speaks in an elegant Kansai dialect. “He is the opposite of me when it comes to the type of energy and the way he expends it,” Yokoyama says. “But we share our values. Those values include the importance of finding synergy with people. Whether it’s with a spouse, friend, or business partner, working to find that synergy is one of my life themes. When I talked with Kawasaki, I saw that we were similar that way.”
Kawasaki is inheriting excellent ground for sinking in roots at I Love Sushi on Lake Bellevue. But the wings will be tougher as he must have the courage to change things. Courage can turn into self-satisfaction over time. I hope he can rise to the occasion,” Yokoyama says.
“I am a person with strong thoughts. Those thoughts forge my path. But it must make things difficult for those who are around me. I’ve been tough on people,” he says. Throughout his conversation, Yokoyama brings up the names of people he has worked with, saying “I really am indebted to them,” or “That chef was truly amazing.” In fact, many Japanese owners, chefs and head chefs in Seattle’s restaurant scene have gone through the original I Love Sushi at some point. “It’s been said that Japan doesn’t have any natural resources, but the world wants its Japanese food and Japanese chefs. That’s one of Japan’s natural resources. And that’s the essence of the Japanese. The source of happiness is eating wonderful food. I want to make a platform for lots of Japanese to show the world Japan’s wonderful food culture. To do that, Kawasaki and I will always be looking for people who, with passion and integrity, want to spread the Japanese food culture to the world. These challengers, come and knock on our door!” says Yokoyama.