Man Charged For Allegedly Threatening Sozai Owner Hajime Sato

The defendant made “very specific, very detailed threats to murder my husband, based entirely on his status as a non-white immigrant,” his wife alleges.
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Sozai in Clawson // Photograph by Hour Detroit

A man was charged for making alleged threats against Hajime Sato, chef-owner of Sozai, a sushi restaurant in Clawson. The Clawson Police Department obtained an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) for the man under a new law which allows police departments in Michigan to seize firearms from certain individuals deemed a threat, the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office said.

At a Clawson City Council meeting earlier this week, Sato’s wife said the alleged threats were motivated by Sato’s ethnic background as a Japanese immigrant. However, the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office did not bring ethnic intimidation charges, and says the facts of the case can’t prove such charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

The defendant, male, was charged with illegal use of a telecommunications device and menacing — both misdemeanors — by the Clawson City Attorney after a May 26 report was filed with the city police department, city officials said. The defendant was charged in the 52-4 District Court in Troy, and he is scheduled for arraignment on June 12, court documents show.

On Saturday morning, Oakland County Chief Assistant Prosecutor David Williams provided the following statement to Hour Detroit:

“We take this case, and all such cases very seriously. Unfortunately, the facts in this case would not allow us to prove a charge of Ethnic Intimidation. We support the Clawson City Attorney’s decision to issue the highest charges possible, which our office would have issued had they not already done so. It is important for the public to know that the Clawson Police Department sought and obtained an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), which allowed police to seize any firearms in the defendant’s possession.”

Sozai
Hajime Sato in 2022 // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

On Tuesday, Sato’s wife Elizabeth addressed Clawson City Council at a public meeting, alleging the threats centered around Sato’s ethnicity. Sato is a Japanese immigrant and opened his first restaurant in Seattle in 1994 before moving to Michigan in 2019.

“About a week and a half ago, a person not living in the community, a person who was armed made very specific, very detailed threats to murder my husband based entirely on his status as a non-white immigrant,” Elizabeth said at the Jun. 4 meeting. “[Ethnic intimidation charges], which we have in the state of Michigan, are not being brought. And I do not understand why.”

Clawson City Attorney Renis Nushaj says that the city does not have the power to bring charges for ethnic intimidation — they would have to be brought by the Oakland County prosecutor or a federal prosecutor.

“[Ethnic intimidation charges] are either state or federal charges,” Nushaj told Hour Detroit when reached by phone Thursday morning. “So we don’t have the authority by the Home Rule City Act to be able to charge someone with ethnic intimidation. It is the prerogative of either the county prosecutor or federal prosecutor to be able to do so.”

Under Michigan state law, ethnic intimidation is a felony punishable by up to 2 years in prison and fines up to $5,000.

“I’m not aware of any municipality that has an ethnic intimidation misdemeanor,” Nushaj said. “I would imagine it would be unwise to have. …Municipalities can only sanction up to 93 days in jail when it comes to misdemeanors. That’s the statutory limit placed upon municipalities. Ethnic intimidation charges, as controlled by either the county and/or the state or federal government carry different kind of punishments. Much steeper punishments. To bring such charges and reduce them to a misdemeanor level, in my opinion, is unwise.”

Sato did not respond to Hour Detroit’s request for comment. His restaurant, Sozai, opened in 2021 and has received national recognition for its sustainable sushi and omakase dining. This year he’s a James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef: Great Lakes; he was nominated for Outstanding Chef last year.

This story was updated on Jun. 8 at 12:02 p.m. to reflect new information and a statement from Oakland County Chief Assistant Prosecutor David Williams.

This story was updated on Jun. 6 at 7:17 p.m. to reflect new information from Clawson Chief of Police Kellie Bauss.

Hour Detroit will update this story as more information becomes available.