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Yoshi’s soulful journey into jazz and food

Yoshi’s Jazz Club is one of the most iconic places in the Bay Area. It is a world-renowned music venue, a well known sushi restaurant and such a major piece of Oakland’s history that, according to Yoshi’s’ official website, “In 1997, Yoshi’s was invited by the Port of Oakland to relocate to Jack London Square as part of a plan to revitalize the area.” The most intriguing part of Yoshi’s, however, is the fact that it was founded by three students. The restaurant’s owner and namesake, Yoshi Akiba, is a graduate of Mills Collge and currently lives in the Rockridge district of Oakland.

Yoshi Akiba was born in Yokohama in Kanagawa-ken, near Tokyo. “I was a war orphan after World War II,” she said, sitting in the garden of her serene, Japanese style home. “I lost my family when I was 5. So I was raised in a private orphanage in Zushi City. I was raised by a young woman who was only 15 years older than me.”

Akiba recalls that there was an American Army base near Zushi City, and that they had an officers’ club, which used to help her orphanage. As a child, she used to dance and sing to entertain the officers. “So I got early training singing and dancing,” she said.

Akiba came to the United States at the age of 19, when she married a naval officer.

She came to study dance and music at Peabody Music Conservatory in Baltimore, where her husband was a professor at the time. While studying various forms of dance and music, Akiba also attended an American high school to learn English. She also devoted time to being a wife. “And that’s all I did: cooked and studied. I was a good student. So much to learn,” she said.

“Then I realized that I’m not happy with being high society. I’m not the type,” Akiba said. “I left him. After five years. And I decided: If I leave, I will live far from him. Because I was still young, and if something didn’t work out well, maybe I would run back to him crying. I didn’t want to do that. So I came to San Francisco. That way, even if I was lonely or sad I cannot go back to him.”

After moving to the Bay Area, Akiba first studied art and dance at Merritt College and began taking dance lessons at Shawl and Anderson Dance Center. In 1972, her third year, she transferred to UC Berkeley, where she majored in painting and dance. At Berkeley, she was one of six students accepted into a free daily Martha Graham technique class. “So I was dancing every day for two years. So I always kept dancing.”

For graduate school, Yoshi Akiba attended Mills College, where she received her masters degree in dance therapy and performing arts.

“Since I don’t have any parents, I had to find a way to make a living,” Akiba said. She recalls the days when she and her two friends and business partners, Kaz Kajimura and Hiroyuki Hori, founded Yoshi’s, and started to build and renovate the small sushi restaurant in 1972. Akiba, Kajimura and Hori did everything themselves, from architecture to art design, and were thus able to open their first restaurant with only $7000. In 1973 the first Yoshi’s was opened on the north side of UC Berkeley’s campus, inside a mall. While the original Yoshi’s is no longer there, the site is now occupied by another sushi restaurant called Aki. “We were young enough to be foolish,” Akiba said, with a smile. “We were fearless, so we jumped into it. We weren’t that prepared, but we figured it out, and we started swimming,” she said.

All three of the founders were fans of jazz music, and in 1977, when the restaurant moved to Claremont Avenue, they decided to add a second floor with a jazz club and dancing.

“I knew that I cannot make lots of money running jazz, but I really believe jazz is a great art form, and therefore there’s always enough audience so I can make a business just to keep up. That’s why I chose jazz: because it appealed to me more. [Jazz is] really similar to my own soul,” Akiba said.

In 1987, Akiba married a Zen priest, and together they built a traditional Japanese Zen-do. Akiba believes it is necessary for her to stay in touch with her Japanese heritage and currently teaches Japanese Tea Ceremonies from her home in Oakland, but at the same time she acknowledges her American half through the jazz music at Yoshi’s. “At the restaurant, I combined sushi and jazz, and here [at home] I teach Japanese culture. So combining all this, I am complete.”

“The secret to be able to do all these things: I do all the time. I have the discipline to do it. And I still take ballet classes every day. My age, if you don’t dance every day, you cannot perform,” she said. Akiba still performs from time to time at Yoshi’s.

“I’m lucky I have wonderful partners. Honest people, hard workers, we’ve never had any fights over money. I’m only interested in dealing with people, and the creativities, and Hiro is the one who cooks food, and Kaz is the one who handles business. And each one has a strength, so it’s a good combination.”

When asked what she would say if she could go back and speak to herself in the days of Yoshi’s founding, Akiba said this: “I just came this way, I did not know I would be successful. We were just working hard. I did not [think about] anything else. I took every day very seriously, and being honest, hardworking, and responsible. And that’s it. I didn’t have time to think anything else. Be myself.”

Check out the website for Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese Restaurant. yoshi