Yoshie Akiba, co-founder of Jack London Square-based Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Restaurant is suing her current business partners, including her ex-husband Kazuo Kajimura, alleging a years-long attempt to seize control of the legendary Oakland jazz club by way of embezzlement and fraud. 

“This is my last fight so that I can leave Yoshi’s to this community in good hands and Yoshi’s can continue with the spirit of Jazz and Zen for the coming 50 years,” Akiba, 80, told The Oaklandside in a statement sent by her attorneys.

The complaint was filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Dec. 21 2022 on behalf of Akiba and the estate of late Yoshi’s co-founder Hugh “Hiro” Hori, who passed away in November 2021. Akiba claims that Kajimura and current Yoshi’s general manager and CEO Halisson Campos engaged in fraudulent and deceitful behaviors. 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 built Yoshi’s Jazz Club into the incomparable institution it is today,” Lyn Agre and Edward Shapiro, lawyers for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “The defendants here have worked for years to deprive Ms. Akiba of her share of profits and to make her feel unwelcome in her own club.”

Hugh “Hiro” Hori (top left), Kazuo Kajimura (standing next to Hori), and Yoshie Akiba (bottom) with others at Yoshi’s restaurant during the early years of the business. Photo courtesy of Yoshie Akiba

Yoshi’s 50-year history blends business with the personal

Yoshi’s began 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 the chef. At the time, Akiba acted as the club’s host and artistic director, while also studying dance a few blocks away at UC Berkeley.

While the Yoshi’s website claims that Kajimura was an original third partner in the creation of the restaurant, and at least one article written about the restaurant that featured interviews with Akiba and Kajimura seems to corroborate that story, Akiba’s lawsuit asserts that Kajimura did not join the business until “years later.” 

After finding success in Berkeley, Yoshi’s moved to a larger venue on Oakland’s Claremont Avenue in 1979. This space allowed them to begin hosting live music, beginning with bi-weekly shows from Berkeley-raised 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 once again, moving to a new, 300-plus seat venue in Jack London Square as part of Oakland’s plan to revitalize the area. 

Riding 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 Yoshi’s restaurant and 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 the San Francisco venture was relatively short-lived, Yoshi’s Oakland continued to grow. So did the amount of money flowing through the bank accounts of YJR Inc., and according to the complaint, Kajimura — who worked as the handyman and bookkeeper for the business and was entrusted with access and full control of its bank accounts, along with Akiba and Hori’s personal accounts — was taking more than his fair share.

The plaintiffs’ legal team claims that Kajimura “used Akiba and Hori’s trust in him and his control over the joint accounts to their detriment, and his advantage, for years,” and asserts that between 2017 and 2020, of the $882,744 in proceeds from YJR Inc. that was paid into the joint accounts of the three equal partners, Kajimura paid himself $585,155 — dispensing roughly $65,000 each to Akiba and Hori.

In addition, the complaint claims that Kajimura paid from these funds “thousands of dollars” to his sister, Holland, who was “well aware that Kajimura was giving her converted funds that should have been distributed to Akiba and Hori,” but that this “did not stop her from accepting these payments.”

According to Shapiro, Akiba became 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 terminal illness diagnosis, uncovered unusual transactions. Akiba asked for her accounts to be reviewed as well, and similar transactions were discovered.

In the complaint, Akiba’s legal team claims that she then asked YJR Inc.’s accountant for a copy of the club’s then-current books and records, an action they say is a protected right under the company’s bylaws, but that Campos directed the accountant not to deliver Akiba the requested records.

Akiba’s lawyers claim that YJR Inc. was negligent in its supervision of Campos because it failed to conduct reviews of the club’s finances or prevent Campos from withholding the company’s bookkeeping records after Akiba had requested them.

Steven Lee, YJR Inc.’s attorney in the matter, forwarded an official statement to The Oaklandside on the company’s behalf, saying “we have read the complaints and are disappointed that the plaintiffs would make such unfounded allegations. We are looking forward to the truth coming out but have nothing more to say at the moment.”

In addition to the allegation of Campos refusing to turn over financial records to Akiba, which her legal team claims have still not been received, the complaint alleges that  Campos used his authority at the club to pay himself an exorbitant salary, and that he allegedly siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the restaurant’s bank accounts, into his own.

“In conjunction with the deterioration of Kajimura’s health,” Akiba’s lawyers wrote in the complaint, “and without Plaintiffs’ knowledge or consent, Kajimura ceded control of YJR Inc.’s operations to Campos, who began to operate the business without any oversight.” 

Yoshi’s at Jack London Square. Credit: Ken Lester

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 authorization, and increased his salary to an average of over $150,000 annually throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the business being either closed due to government mandates, or operating at a significantly reduced capacity during this time.

On top of Campos’ increased salary that Akiba’s lawyers described as being “significantly in excess of the market rate for similar positions in the industry,” they also accuse him of writing unauthorized bonus checks to himself, sometimes multiple times in a single day, claiming that “in January 2022 alone, Campos paid himself an additional $49,038 from YJR Inc.’s funds.”

Kajimura’s and Campos’ actions were not limited to financial misconduct, according to Akiba’s legal team. The complaint accuses Kajimura of physically assaulting Akiba, allegedly shoving her to the ground at their “shared residence” on July 22, 2022 after Akiba requested that he pay back a loan that she’d given him for food.

The lawsuit also states that “Campos habitually berated Yoshi’s management-level employees, often launching into belligerent tirades, threatening them with termination, and subsequently gaslighting them in an attempt to convince them that they were ‘overly dramatic.’”

According to the complaint, this “vitriol” eventually meant that Campos agreed to a monetary settlement with a former employee in an attempt to avoid any legal action they may have taken against him or the restaurant. Akiba was never informed of this expenditure, according to her lawyers. 

Richard Poulson, the attorney for both 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 would make such unfounded 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 worked tirelessly to ensure the survival of this business only to then have to address baseless claims from the plaintiffs whose contributions to the restaurant ceased long ago. We look forward to the truth coming out in this litigation and have no further comment at this time.”

The defense has until late February to respond to the complaint, but Akiba’s legal team said they are confident that any motion to dismiss the claim will be unsuccessful. When asked if he believed they had a sufficient backlog of evidence to prove their claims in front of a jury, Shapiro answered simply: “yes.” 

“It seems like they never thought they’d get caught,” Shapiro said, “and didn’t really make much of an effort to cover their tracks.”