Update, Sept. 7, 9 a.m.: According to a spokesperson from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, Kotaro Kumita was arraigned on Dec. 26, 2019 and pleaded not guilty to two counts of third-degree assault, second-degree extortion and unlawful imprisonment. A no-contact order was also issued that day. Kumita was booked at King County Jail and released that same day, with a summons set by a judge.
A Seattle restaurateur has been charged with assault and extortion of an employee whose visa status he controlled.
King County prosecutors have charged Kotaro Kumita, owner and chef of upscale sushi restaurant Wataru, with second-degree extortion, unlawful imprisonment and two counts of third-degree assault for attacks they say happened between February and June 2019. A scheduling hearing will take place in King County Superior Court on Sept. 23.
According to the charging document, authorities say Kumita hit his employee, Masayuki Kaneda, in the head with a frying pan — denting the pan — slammed his face into the ground hard enough to open a 3-inch laceration on his forehead, kicked him in the face after forcing him to kneel in retribution, threw a frozen cod at him and threatened him with a knife among “countless assaults.”
Kumita also extorted thousands of dollars from Kaneda through fines and paycheck reductions, charging documents filed in King County Superior Court last December allege. Kumita did not immediately respond to requests for comment left at his home and restaurant. The story was first reported this week by Eater Seattle.
Court documents and a supporting police investigation summary are based on information from Kaneda and other employees at Wataru, on Northeast 65th Street. Kumita is an acclaimed sushi chef who, in 2017, was a James Beard award semifinalist in the Best Chef: Northwest category.
Kaneda quit his job in June 2019. Asked by investigators why he put up with Kumita’s abuse for so many months before quitting, Kaneda said he feared losing his guest worker status that was controlled by his employer. Kaneda told police that in addition to the abuse, he was fined $100 for perceived mistakes in food preparation, and was sometimes forced to walk to an ATM to retrieve the money. He said Kumita also began deducting $1,000 a month from his paycheck.
In all, he said Kumita took about $4,700 from him. Kaneda said his former boss later sent him a letter of apology after he quit, and included $4,700 in cash.
A witness who worked at the restaurant with Kaneda told police investigators that when asked about the frying pan and knife attacks, Kumita said he needed to hit Kaneda in the head so he would remember what he did wrong.
Later, in April, Kaneda told police Kumita became so upset with him that he forced him to stay at the restaurant until 2 a.m. and when he finally escaped, Kumita chased and beat him.
The court filing says Kumita has no recent criminal history, but was convicted of domestic violence abuse in 1996 and reckless driving in 1991.
All four charges are Class C felonies, which carry a penalty of up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.