One Monday night last June, three employees of Ravenna’s critically acclaimed sushi destination Wataru had a somber meeting. Over dumplings at Din Tai Fung’s U District restaurant, waitress Mie Park and another coworker listened as sous chef Masayuki “Masa” Kaneda described a harrowing series of confrontations with Wataru head chef and owner Kotaro Kumita, which he said had escalated into physical violence. Park had seen Kaneda crying after service that weekend, and had asked for the meeting so they could understand what was happening to Kaneda and figure out how to help.
Over the course of an hour and a half, Kaneda picked at his food and described how he endured several beatings from Kumita at Wataru, including one that left a gash on his forehead, as well as constant verbal abuse, and a one-sided arrangement in which the sous chef was forced to take money out of his account to pay for mistakes he made in the kitchen.
As he told the story, Kaneda muttered unconvincing assurances that he was fine. But he didn’t seem to understand the severity of what he endured and seemed more ashamed than angry, according to the coworker, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution. “He wanted to go back to work, and was scared to go to the police,” the coworker says. Complicating matters was that Kumita was Kaneda’s visa sponsor, and held a great deal of power over his work eligibility status in the U.S. after the sous chef arrived from Japan in 2018.
Park had an inkling that things were off beforehand — “I spoke Japanese, so I heard things that Kumita said to him,” she says — but it wasn’t until Kaneda shared the full story that she realized how bad things had gotten at Wataru. “It was so terrible,” she says.
The next day, Park and the coworker told other members of the staff about Kaneda’s ordeal. Five out of the restaurant’s eight staff members didn’t go into work on Wednesday, when the restaurant reopened. Or the day after that. “We didn’t quit,” server John Northey says. “We just didn’t show up.” The five employees never returned, and Kaneda was fired.
Kumita denies ever physically harming Kaneda, and says the sous chef is making up the story. But he wouldn’t comment on some of the allegations, including the one about docking Kaneda’s pay for mistakes, citing the pending criminal case against him, which includes two counts of assault and one count of extortion filed by a King County prosecutor last December.
While there has been increased attention to issues of sexual harassment and verbal abuse in kitchens, physical abuse is also all too common. In March, famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten got into hot water after admitting in a book that he “beat the shit” out of a dishwasher decades ago and seemed unapologetic about it. A few years ago, the high-end LA sushi restaurant Urasawa faced legal troubles amid abuse allegations from former employees. But the Wataru story seems to go beyond the old-school (and outdated) militaristic attitudes of high-intensity restaurants, and highlights just how vulnerable immigrant workers can be, especially when those employees rely on a chef for their livelihood. Kaneda was able to live in the country because of Kumita — and felt that if he rocked the boat, there would be dire consequences. In an industry that can be brutal to both undocumented and legal immigrant workers, it might not be difficult to understand why someone who says he was mistreated for so long wanted to keep things quiet.
Since opening in 2015, Wataru, which specializes in edomae-style sushi, has been known as one of Seattle’s premier Japanese restaurants. Chef and owner Kotaro Kumita was a protege of local sushi master Shiro Kashiba, who apprenticed under the legendary Jiro Ono; his skills earned him a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef: Northwest three years ago. Seats at the bar were highly coveted pre-pandemic, while reservations at the intimate, understated dining room were often booked out for months.
Six former employees who spoke with Eater described Kumita as a talented chef and unrelenting taskmaster who was prone to fits of anger. As a result, Wataru experienced a striking amount of turnover for a restaurant of its stature. A small restaurant, it generally operated with fewer than 10 staffers at any given point, but in the year and a half prior to the Kaneda-related exodus, more than 20 people cycled through the front or back of house, with some people lasting as little as a couple of weeks, according to the employees. Kumita had no comment about the restaurant’s turnover; when asked if he had any problems with past employees, he says, “Sometimes they didn’t like the pay — claiming it was too low or stuff like that. But it was [otherwise] pretty much okay.”
Several former staff members say that the attrition was a result of Kumita’s exacting nature, which grew less tolerable over time. One server, who worked at Wataru for two years and asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, says the “chef is a talented person, but struggles to manage the restaurant.” This person claims that Kumita would get angry at workers if they didn’t understand his instructions right away, and that he often undermined staff — including Kaneda — in front of customers.
Signs that Kumita was aggressive to employees go back years, before Kaneda came on board. Former Wataru chef Akihiko Togawa — who worked at the restaurant three years ago and quit abruptly, he says, because he couldn’t tolerate Kumita’s verbal attacks — contends that the chef was “very emotional” and would take out his anger on the staff if he felt they were resisting what he told them to do or were about to quit. He alleges that he witnessed Kumita throw a chair once in a fit of rage.
Sushi chef Eric Sin — who worked at the same time as Togawa — also portrayed Kumita as an imposing presence, and says he was berated countless times and forced to do menial tasks if he screwed up. “[Kumita] would try to get in my face,” says Sin, who left the restaurant after three months. “I’m kind of a taller, bigger guy, so I would just show that I wasn’t going to put up with what he was doing, and he would back down.”
Kumita had no comment on the allegations made by Togawa and Sin.
Kaneda arrived at Wataru in 2018, after both Sin and Togawa were gone, but his connection to Kumita goes back further. Not long after the restaurant opened, Kumita emailed Kaneda after learning about the young chef through a mutual acquaintance. Eventually, Kaneda — who had worked at sushi restaurants in Japan for six years to that point — traveled to Seattle to meet Kumita in person, and shortly thereafter the chef offered to be his visa sponsor and to give him a job. When Kaneda first began working for the restaurant, in 2018, Kumita had been kind to him. “Whenever I would have trouble with something or needed help understanding something, he was very helpful in teaching me,” Kaneda says.
But in November 2018, one chef left abruptly, followed shortly by yet another staff member in January 2019. According to at least four employees, Kumita did not seem to take it well when employees left, and it often darkened his mood. It was in January, Kaneda claims, that the physical abuse began, and it allegedly grew worse over the next few months.
On June 22, 2019, not long after the Din Tai Fung dinner, Kaneda went to the police to describe several incidents of physical abuse and bullying at the hands of Kumita. Two months later, after he had left the restaurant, Kaneda filed a restraining order against the chef.
In the police report, Kaneda says that, starting in January 2019, Kumita began to get physically abusive — at first using lighter contact (a kick in the rear end, for instance). But over time, the abuse became more aggressive, he claims. In March, Kaneda alleges Kumita smacked him in the face, pushed him into a sink, and kicked him repeatedly when he was on the ground, according to the police report. This incident resulted in a gash in Kaneda’s forehead, which a police officer observed and noted. (Eater Seattle has seen a photo of the injury.) His legs were so bruised from this beating that Kaneda wore long jeans to cover them up, according to the unnamed coworker from the Din Tai Fung meeting.
Kumita denies the allegations. “No, no, no, no. This is what happened: He fell on the floor and got injured on his head,” he told Eater Seattle. “That’s what he’s talking about with ‘I got abused’ — trying to get some money from me, a big amount of money. That’s why I hired my lawyer, to avoid that. [Kaneda] really wants money. That’s a little joke to me, you know?”
The police report details another incident, from May 2019, in which Kumita allegedly forced Kaneda down on the ground and kicked him several times again. The chef also allegedly hit Kaneda in the head with the handle end of a kitchen knife, according to the report. In total, the sous chef told police that he endured 20 incidents of physical attacks from Kumita, along with nonstop verbal threats.
The bullying also allegedly affected Kaneda’s pay. “I was told by the chef that I was making mistakes at work and he forced me to write a contract, which would determine the amount of money I’d have to pay as a penalty for the mistakes,” Kaneda tells Eater Seattle. “And whenever I would make a mistake, chef Kumita forced me to go to the ATM right then to withdraw the money, to pay the penalty fee.” Among the alleged transgressions he needed to pay for, Kaneda says, was lying about doing a taste test during prep work. Kaneda told the police he had to pay $100 for every mistake made in the kitchen, along with $1,000 from every paycheck, for a total of $4,700. (The money was returned to Kaneda after the staff walkout, when they urged Kumita to give back the money.)
Kaneda says that he was willing to put up with much of the abuse, but an incident in April 2019 marked a turning point. According to the restraining order, Kumita pointed a knife at him after a period of increasing tension — weeks after the March incident in which Kumita allegedly pushed him in the kitchen, resulting in the gash on Kaneda’s forehead. Kaneda says the chef told him not to report anything because it would harm the business. Kaneda tells Eater Seattle, “I felt scared for my life.”
But it still took two more months after the alleged knife incident before Kaneda confessed what happened to his coworkers. And even then, he says he wanted to return to work rather than involve the authorities. It wasn’t until June 22, days after Kaneda was fired from Wataru, that he finally decided to file a police report at the urging of his coworkers.
Kaneda says that he didn’t go to the police immediately, or initially tell his colleagues the extent of what was going on, because he feared Kumita’s reaction. “I was afraid to even bring up the idea of quitting or going to the police because things would have been worse for me,” he says. In the restraining order, he wrote that he felt “isolated” and “helpless so far from home.” His immigrant status was a factor, too: As a Japanese national on a work visa who didn’t speak much English, his ability to remain in the country depended on his employment at Wataru.
“If [Kumita] fired [Kaneda], Masa knows that he would have to go back to Japan,” Park says. “Kumita knows everybody else who worked for him has been in the U.S. for a long time, so they know that if somebody hits them or does something to them, they can sue — but Masa doesn’t know anything.”
Kumita did not comment specifically on the alleged knife incident or the monetary penalties, again citing the pending investigation, but he denies ever physically assaulting Kaneda. “He is saying all kinds of lies to get money,” he says. “That’s why we are fighting right now [legally], unfortunately. But I hope we can talk and eventually everything calms down.”
Kumita claims he fired Kaneda because the sous chef “couldn’t remember what he needed to do” on a daily basis. The owner also says that it was the firing that led Kaneda to tell his story to coworkers, prompting the mass exodus. (Multiple staffers say that Kaneda was still working at the restaurant when he met them at Din Tai Fung, and that Kumita had wanted him to continue working at the restaurant.)
Kaneda says he is now willing to tell his story so that others will be aware of the power imbalance inherent within certain prestigious restaurants. “I hope this can lead to the relationships between employers and employees becoming more respectful of human rights,” he says.
In December 2019, a local prosecutor officially filed charges in a King County Superior Court against Kumita, including two counts of assault in the third degree and extortion in the second degree, based on Kaneda’s allegations. The case is still open, according to the prosecutor’s office, but it’s unclear when or if there will be a trial. Cases such as these can often take months to go through the system, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that slowed down the process even more. Kaneda — who has a job at a local sushi production facility — tells Eater Seattle he is planning to file a lawsuit against the chef once the criminal case is resolved.
In the meantime, Wataru reopened for takeout in April and has since offered some limited dine-in service as Seattle pauses in phase two of the state’s “Safe Start” reopening plan. Kumita says he is the only one working there.
UPDATED, 5:30 p.m., September 3, 2020: The original version of this piece erroneously stated that no charges had been official yet, but there were criminal charges against Kotaro Kumita filed in a King County Superior Court last December. Details on those charges have been added. The case is still pending.