Yoshie Akiba, co-founder of Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Restaurant, based in Jack London Square, is suing her current business partners, including her ex-husband Kazuo Kajimura, alleging a years-long attempt to take over the legendary jazz club from ‘Oakland by means of embezzlement and fraud.
“This is my last fight so that I can leave Yoshi to this community in good hands and that Yoshi can carry on with the spirit of jazz and Zen for the next 50 years,” Akiba, 80, told The Oaklandside in a statement sent by his lawyers. .
The suit was filed in Alameda County Superior Court on December 21, 2022 on behalf of Akiba and the estate of the late Yoshi’s co-founder, Hugh “Hiro” Hori, who died in November 2021. Akiba claims that Kajimura and current Yoshi Managing Director and CEO Halisson Campos has engaged in fraudulent and deceptive behavior. It also names Kajimura’s sister, Toshiko Holland, and the business itself, Yoshi’s Japanese Restaurant, Inc. (YJR Inc.), as defendants.
“Yoshie Akiba is a Bay Area legend who made Yoshi’s Jazz Club the incomparable institution it is today,” Lyn Agre and Edward Shapiro, plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in a statement. “The defendants here worked for years to deprive Ms Akiba of her share of profits and to make her feel unwanted at her own club.”
Yoshi’s 50-year history blends business and personal life
Yoshi’s started in 1972 as a small Japanese restaurant at 2505 Hearst Ave. in Berkeley – according to Akiba, as a joint venture with Hori, who served as chef. At the time, Akiba was acting as the club’s host and artistic director, while studying dance a few blocks from UC Berkeley.
While Yoshi’s website claims that Kajimura was an original third partner in creating the restaurant, and at least one article written about the restaurant that featured interviews with Akiba and Kajimura seems to support this story, Akiba’s lawsuit claims that Kajimura did not join the company. until “years later”.
After finding success in Berkeley, Yoshi moved to a larger venue on Claremont Avenue in Oakland in 1979. This space allowed them to host live music, beginning with twice-weekly performances by pianist Benny Green and his band. YJR Inc. was officially incorporated in 1980, with Akiba, Hori, and Kajimura agreeing to an equal partnership.
The combination of jazz and traditional Japanese fare proved successful, and in 1997 Yoshi’s expanded again, moving to a new 300+ seat venue in Jack London Square as part of the Oakland plan aimed at revitalizing the region.
Riding on the success of its Jack London Square location, Akiba and Kajimura, along with developer Michael E. Johnson, received a $4.4 million loan in 2004 from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency to open a second restaurant and club. Yoshi jazz club in the city’s Fillmore district.
The San Francisco location opened in 2007 but struggled to stay afloat. According to a 2014 report by The New Fillmore, Yoshi’s SF declared bankruptcy in 2012. The club closed in late 2014.
Allegations include financial fraud, intimidation and abuse
While San Francisco’s business was relatively short, Yoshi’s Oakland continued to grow. The same goes for the amount of money circulating in YJR Inc.’s bank accounts, and according to the complaint, Kajimura – who worked as a handyman and accountant for the company and was given access and control total of his bank accounts, along with Akiba and Hori’s personal accounts – was taking more than his fair share.
Plaintiffs’ legal team claims that Kajimura “used Akiba and Hori’s trust in him and his control over joint accounts to their detriment and advantage for years”, and claims that between 2017 and 2020, on of the $882,744 in proceeds from YJR Inc. that went to the joint accounts of the three equal partners, Kajimura paid himself $585,155 – distributing approximately $65,000 each to Akiba and Hori.
Additionally, the complaint alleges that Kajimura paid “thousands of dollars” of these funds to his sister, Holland, who was “well aware that Kajimura was giving him converted funds that should have been distributed to Akiba and Hori,” but that this “did not prevent her from accepting these payments.
According to Shapiro, Akiba grew suspicious of Kajimura and Campos after a third-party review of Hori’s bank statements and assets, undertaken to prepare his estate in the face of a terminally ill diagnosis, uncovered unusual dealings. Akiba also requested that his accounts be reviewed and similar transactions were discovered.
In the complaint, Akiba’s legal team says it then asked YJR Inc.’s accountant for a copy of the club’s then-current books and records, an action they say is a right protected by the statutes. of the company, but that Campos directed the accountant. not to deliver to Akiba the requested recordings.
Akiba’s lawyers claim YJR Inc. was negligent in its supervision of Campos because it failed to conduct a review of the club’s finances or prevent Campos from withholding the company’s accounting records after ‘Akiba asked for them.
Steven Lee, YJR Inc.’s attorney in the matter, issued an official statement to The Oaklandside on behalf of the company, stating, “We have read the complaints and are disappointed that the plaintiffs are making such baseless allegations. We are eagerly waiting for the truth to come out, but we have nothing more to say at this time.
In addition to the allegation that Campos refused to hand over financial records to Akiba, which his legal team said have still not been received, the complaint alleges that Campos used his authority at the club to pay himself a salary. exorbitant and that he allegedly siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the restaurant’s bank accounts into his own.
“In conjunction with Kajimura’s deteriorating health,” Akiba’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit, “and without the plaintiffs’ knowledge or consent, Kajimura ceded control of YJR Inc.’s operations to Campos, who started operating the business without any oversight.”
According to the complaint, Campos allegedly used this lack of oversight from YJR Inc. to promote himself, becoming the company’s CEO without any input or permission and raising his salary to an average of more than $150,000 a year throughout. the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the business either being closed due to government mandates or operating at significantly reduced capacity during this time.
In addition to Campos’ salary increase, which Akiba’s lawyers described as “significantly above the market rate for similar positions in the industry”, they also accuse him of writing checks to himself. unauthorized bonuses, sometimes multiple times in a single day, claiming that “in January 2022 alone, Campos paid himself an additional $49,038 from YJR Inc. funds.”
Kajimura and Campos’ actions were not limited to financial misconduct, according to Akiba’s legal team. The lawsuit accuses Kajimura of physically assaulting Akiba, allegedly pushing her to the ground in their “shared residence” on July 22, 2022, after Akiba asked him to repay a loan she gave him for food.
The lawsuit also states that “Campos habitually berated Yoshi’s management employees, often launching into belligerent tirades, threatening them with dismissal, then spotlighting them in an attempt to convince them that they were ‘too dramatic’.”
According to the complaint, this “vitriol” ultimately meant that Campos agreed to a monetary settlement with a former employee in an effort to avoid any legal action they might have taken against him or the restaurant. Akiba was never informed of these expenses, according to his lawyers.
Richard Poulson, the attorney for Kajimura and Campos, provided a statement on behalf of his clients regarding the allegations.
“We have read the complaint and are disappointed that the plaintiffs are making such baseless allegations against these two individuals who have done so much to contribute to and ensure the success of Yoshi’s,” Poulson said.
“From starting the restaurant to navigating the Covid-19 pandemic, my clients have worked tirelessly to ensure the survival of this business only to then have to respond to baseless claims from complainants whose contributions to the restaurant have long ceased. We eagerly await the truth in this litigation and have no further comment at this time.
The defense has until the end of February to respond to the complaint, but Akiba’s legal team said it was confident any motion to dismiss the complaint would be unsuccessful. When asked if he thought they had a sufficient backlog of evidence to prove their claims in front of a jury, Shapiro simply replied, “yes.”
“It seems like they never thought they’d get caught,” Shapiro said, “and didn’t really put in much effort to cover their tracks.”