The Strange Story of Yoshie Akiba, War Orphan Turned Club Owner

By Yoshie Akiba, as told to Chinwe Oniah

My name is Yoshie. But my club is called Yoshi’s. It’s easier for Americans to say.

When I was a little girl, I lived in an orphanage in Zushi, Japan. There was a U.S. naval base nearby with an officers’ club, and they invited us to Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving—all these special events. At that time, after the war, we didn’t have much. Our food was terrible, so to eat their food felt like I was in heaven. The naval base had so much money, they invited famous bands from all over the world. I remember Trio Los Panchos. And Benny Goodman! So many famous bands were there, and I just loved it. They looked so wonderful and so free.

I was 19 years old when we left Yokohama harbor by naval ship. It was very strict.

The officers helped us, so we entertained them. I was trained by women at the orphanage to sing and dance since I was 5. I remember singing “Come on a-my house, my house-a come on.” Those officers loved it and they gave so much candy! It was great. I knew if I could dance and sing, people would give me things, so I kept studying. That’s how I first learned to dance.

When I got older, I met a young American woman who was studying flower arrangement and we became friends. One day she told me her older brother, a naval officer, lived in Kamakura. She told me he wants to study dance, so she brought Chris and introduced us. I taught him how to dance and he taught me English. Then one day he said, “I’d like to take you with me to the United States.” He told me, “You’re a young girl with no parents, no money. If you come with me, I will send you to dance school, music school, everything.”

“OK,” I said, “but I’m not in love with you.”

He said “That’s OK. I can wait.”

I was 19 years old when we left Yokohama harbor by naval ship. One of my girlfriends, she married a GI, not an officer, so she was below decks. As an officer’s wife, I was on the top deck. She cannot come up to visit me, but I can go down to see her. Can you believe it? It was very strict.

Chris was also a concert pianist. After the Navy, he graduated from Peabody musical conservatory and was a wonderful teacher. One day a girl came in. She was very talented, and Chris realized maybe she could be famous. Chris was putting all his energy into her. I didn’t suspect anything, but my ballet teacher somehow found out. She said, “You better be careful. That young woman is very … don’t trust her.” She said, “One day go home early and check with your own eyes.” I don’t know why, but I did. I went home early, into the music room. Sure enough, she was taking off her dress in front of Chris. She was naked. I was really shocked.

I think for most people, it’s unthinkable. Improvise with jazz? On the spot? For me, it was no problem.

A Japanese friend of ours in Baltimore, Shuhei Yayama, said, “I think you should be on your own. Chris gave you education. Give Chris freedom. You always depend on him. You’re not that kind of person. You have to find your own soul.” I realized he was right. I saw on television the hippie movement and I liked it! I wanted to be one of the hippies.

I left Chris a note one day. I said, “Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing, and when I’m settled down, I will contact you.” I flew to San Francisco. I was sitting on a trunk in the airport, thinking, “What should I do? Where should I go?” when two young men asked if I needed a place to stay. They had a room in Berkeley. And I said, “I don’t have much money so I cannot pay rent, but I can clean the place and I can cook for you until I can find a job,” and they said OK. I did that for them until I got a sewing job at Andre Godet’s dress shop on Telegraph.

That was my first job here, but later—while I was a student at UC Berkeley—we would open the first Yoshi’s on Northside. It was a tiny place. Just 20 seats. It became so popular we soon needed a larger space. Only now, I didn’t just want a restaurant, I wanted a club, I wanted to enjoy myself. We moved to a bigger place on Claremont and College. I started bringing in bands.

One act was Al Di Meola, the guitar player. One night he asked for me from the stage, “Can you come dance with us?” I said, “OK!” Everyone was so surprised. I got on the stage. He starts playing and I just danced with them. I improvised and people loved it. I think for most people, it’s unthinkable. Improvise with jazz? On the spot? For me, it was no problem.

Even now, I dance. I take ballet every day. I still perform at Yoshi’s sometimes. I will keep dancing until I can’t move.

From the Summer 2019 issue of California.
Filed under: Perspectives
Image source: Screenshot from video by Chinwe Oniah
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Amazing story! I met Yoshi at Shawl Andersen Dance Studio in Berkeley. I was at her place on Northside and at Claremont. Love the food and jazz musicians she had perform.
Tank you.

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