Amid Quest to Regain Control of Okada Manila, Kazuo Okada Insists: 'I've Done Nothing Wrong'
Kazuo Okada, the Japanese gaming tycoon who built and can see his name shining bright on the largest integrated resort and casino property in Manila, turned 80 years old this year. As a savvy businessman who made his fortune in businesses related to gaming and leisure, he is supposed to be enjoying the fruits of his labors well into his golden years.
Instead, Okada is facing numerous battles to regain control of the $3.3 billion casino resort property and clear his name from a multitude of cases filed against him by a rival group—the same group that ousted him from the boards of the companies that own Okada Manila.
“I have not done anything illegal,” he says through his interpreter Motoya Nakamura, in an interview with Esquire Philippines. “I have done nothing wrong. I have been in this business for 50 years. I see no reason why I would need to commit a crime.”
Explainer: Who Is Kazuo Okada and What Exactly Happened During that 'Takeover?'
After Behind-the-Scenes Drama, Okada Manila Says It's Business as Usual
Wearing a gray jacket over a salmon-colored shirt, jeans, and sneakers, Okada appears tired but in good spirits when I meet him inside a conference room of a residence and hotel building in Bonifacio Global City. A few weeks have passed since he was arrested and posted bail on a charge of grave coercion stemming from his group’s forcible takeover of Okada Manila in May this year. Six other charges filed against him and his associates by the Department of Justice have been dismissed—including kidnapping, unjust vexation, falsification of public documents, direct assault, slight physical injuries, and serious illegal detention—a fact that his camp says the rival group conveniently left out in the latter’s publicity blitz against Okada.
Kazuo Okada insists he sees no reason why he would need to commit a crime
But in addition to the grave coercion charge, the octogenarian is facing multiple other cases in at least six jurisdictions around the world, according to Universal Entertainment Corp. (UEC), a company which he founded, as well as its subsidiaries Tiger Resort Asia Ltd (TRAL) and Tiger Resort Leisure and Entertainment Inc. (TRLEI), which operate Okada Manila.
“There were roughly about 10 cases against Mr. Okada, but almost half of that are already settled, already finished,” Nakamura says. “The other group kind of filed lawsuits against Mr. Okada to make him panic by just filing here and there.”
Okada’s legal troubles—at least those related to Okada Manila—started after he was ousted by the boards of UEC and TRLEI in 2017, just one year after the partial completion and grand opening of the resort-casino property, allegedly because he siphoned off company funds for his personal use. Okada denies these claims and puts the blame on current UEC President Jun Fujimoto, a former colleague whom he is now accusing of betraying him.
“He met Fujimoto around 2000 or year 2001,” Nakamura, speaking for Okada, says. “Mr. Okada was introduced by Nomura Security Corporation. That’s how Fujimoto got onboard the company.”
Okada explains that Fujimoto was actually involved with another company at the time called S.E.T.A. that was having financial issues. But because Fujimoto was vetted by Nomura Securities, Okada says he welcomed him into UEC and made him a board member.
Okada also mentioned Hajime Tokuda, a director of TRLEI, whom he also helped bring into the company. Tokuda was among the officials ejected from Okada Manila during the takeover last May.
“I was generous enough to loan them money because I thought that they would need money being a board member,” Okada says. “I loaned Fujimoto ¥1 billion, and I loaned ¥500 million to Hajime Tokuda. And still they have not repaid (those loans). They are claiming that they don’t need to repay unless they quit the company.
“How could…some people who borrowed money and not pay make me look like I’m the criminal?” he adds.
Kazuo Okada (center) sits with his associate and interpreter Motoya Nakamura (left) and the author (right)
According to Okada, joining the group that ousted him from the boards of the companies that control Okada Manila in 2017 were Jun Fujimoto, Hajime Tokuda, and his estranged wife Takako Okada, as well as local officials like Tony Lazaro, Dindo Espeleta, and Antonio “Tonyboy” Cojuangco. However, Okada was quick to add that the latter three have since changed their minds about the situation.
“At that time, they were part of the group that ousted Mr. Okada,” Nakamura says. “Mr. Okada now believes that they have realized the situation and changed their minds, and now on the side of Mr. Okada.”
In March 2022, Okada finally notched a win when the Supreme Court of the Philippines issued what’s called a Status Quo Ante Order (SQAO) that essentially ordered Okada Manila management to restore its board back to its 2017 structure, before Okada was removed as stockholder, director, chairman and CEO of TRLEI.
Interpreting the decision as an effective reinstatement of himself as chief of Okada Manila, Okada and his associates, which included Espeleta and Cojuangco, moved to forcibly take over operations of the property on May 31, 2022. They were joined by about 50 armed private guards and officers from the Parañaque City Police Department.
Just four months later, with the intervention of both the Department of Justice and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), control of Okada Manila was handed back to TRAL and TRLEI. But Okada himself insists that their takeover was just.
“We went into Okada Manila on May 31st because we were given orders from the Supreme Court, the highest court in the Philippines, to reinstate the board back at the time in 2017,” Okada says.
TRLEI, which is once again running Okada Manila, has said it would honor the Supreme Court’s order to reinstate Okada as chairman and board member, and has even said it has extended an invitation for him to attend the company’s board meetings. But Okada clarifies that this is simply not true.
“There was no invitation coming, so of course I could not attend,” he says.
Okada vs Okada
What’s damning about Okada’s situation is that even his own family is against him. His son, Tomohiro Okada, has 53.27 percent voting rights in Okada Holdings Ltd., the controlling shareholder of UEC. In July, while Okada Manila was in the hands of Kazuo Okada’s group, Tomohiro Okada issued a statement denouncing the actions of his father.
“As the majority controlling shareholder in OHL [Okada Holdings Ltd.], I, Tomohiro Okada, condemn and disown the acts of my father Kazuo and his Filipino and Japanese cohorts in Okada Manila,” he said. “Their perversion of the law must be put to an end. I am organizing the boards of OHL, UEC and TRAL to immediately address this issue, work with our legal teams, and seek redress from the High Court of the Philippines to put to rest the Kazuo group’s futile attempt at what is truly a shameful corporate heist.”
Okada explains that the shares in the company that now belong to his son were mistakenly transferred to Tomohiro in 1990. Neither Okada nor his son knew about that transfer, which means it shouldn’t have been valid. Until today Okada contends that those shares should never have been transferred and is still working to have it reversed.
Okada also believes his son has been misled into believing and ultimately siding with Fujimoto.
“The reason why this happened is because I did not have much chance to have a talk with my son,” Okada says. “If I had a chance to talk with him, then this would not have been as difficult as it is now.
“Once [one] starts or somebody believes in something or believes in somebody, the person becomes almost blind and not able to see much and not able to trust other people, so that’s what I think happened to my son.”
Kazuo Okada is fighting a grave coercion charge, among other cases, and hopes to regain control of the resort-casino that bears his name
Again, Okada blames Fujimoto.
“Fujimoto managed to get the son Tomohiro to (his) side…and also the wife, Mr. Okada’s wife,” says Nakamura. “So he managed to get two Okadas to oust, to prevent Mr. Okada to come back.”
“In general, family they should all have trust with each other, but Fujimoto caused damage and wrecked the relationship,” Okada says. “(He) wrecked the trust among the family.”
“It’s very difficult for Mr. Okada to understand that the family member could be on the other side, and not on his side,” the interpreter adds.
The other side
Esquire Philippines reached out to TRLEI and received a lengthy statement basically condemning Okada and accusing him of spreading falsehoods.
“Kazuo Okada's recent slanderous statements against UEC President Jun Fujimoto and UEC Director Hajime Tokuda are far from the truth,” the statement reads. “He is trying to discredit their reputations as proficient business leaders. Kazuo Okada claimed that he bailed out Fujimoto’s previous company called Seta from bankruptcy. In reality, Fujimoto sold his Seta shares to UEC, making it a subsidiary of the UEC Group. Years after, Kazuo Okada liquidated Seta.
“To set the records straight, Kazuo Okada was ousted from the board of directors of Okada Holdings Ltd. (OHL) in 2017, a corporate decision based on the Trust Agreement effective in the next 30 years that the Supreme Court of Japan upheld as valid,” the statement adds. “Based in Hong Kong, OHL is the controlling shareholder of UEC, which in turn owns TRAL, the 99.9- percent owner of TRLEI. He is also neither a member of the board of UEC nor TRAL.”
The statement also said that Kazuo Okada’s son Tomohiro’s owns a majority stake in OHL by virtue of a Trust Agreement with his sister Hiromi Okada. This agreement has been upheld by the Japanese Supreme Court with concurrence from the Hong Kong Court.
“Okada’s expulsion from OHL, UEC, and TRAL stems from his sloppy multimillion-dollar corporate heist, mismanaging company funds, and using them for personal gain,” the statement said. “So far, we have uncovered that Kazuo Okada has stolen $17 million (¥2 billion) from shareholders.”
Although Okada has retained his board seat in TRLEI throughout the whole ordeal, TRLEI has said that he could be removed if the theft charges against him are proven in court.
A possible settlement?
Today, Okada’s days are filled with meetings with lawyers to try and fight the cases against him and eventually win him back his life’s work: the gleaming 44-hectare property in Entertainment City that carries his name. According to his interpreter, Okada and his legal team are working daily to solve the SQAO issue in the Court of Appeals and at the Supreme Court. He is also working to prove that the shares which his son Tomohiro claims to own are not really his. He says he will do this by going to the Nevada Gaming Board to get proof that there was no official process of applying for the transfer of shares.
His quest to regain control of Okada Manila is understandable. Gaming has seen a resurgence post-pandemic, with players flocking back to casinos since health restrictions have been relaxed. For the first nine months of 2022, Okada reported its gross gaming revenues (GGR) more than doubled year-on-year to P23.8 billion. In the third quarter of 2022, GGR was at P9.52 billion, up 141 percent from a year ago and 14.7 percent from the second quarter this year.
The behind-the-scenes drama apparently did little to keep away people; visitation was up 265 percent to 1.1 million versus last year and average hotel occupancy rate at 75.9 percent compared to 68.6 percent in 2021.
"It's impossible to have a settlement with the other party," Okada says
I ask if there was any way that he could work out his differences with the rival group and actually work together to co-manage Okada Manila, but he rules out any possibility of a handshake settlement.
“It’s impossible to have a settlement with the other party,” he says. “The reason why is because of the evil things that they did, their evil plans. How the other group kept me busy by throwing a lot of cases against me, against such a person who has only a few people to help me out versus a big company with a lot of people helping.”
“I, myself know this because I’m the one helping and supporting Mr. Okada,” Nakamura says. “He has very little force against the other group. So, it’s totally not possible to shake hands or come to an agreement with them.”