Born in Los Angeles, California, Yaki's father was a member of the United States Foreign Service and much of his youth was spent abroad. His family lived in the Philippines, Taiwan, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Ottawa, Canada. He graduated from high school in Virginia and earned his Bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. He then received his law degree from Yale Law School.
Upon graduation, Yaki clerked for the California Courts of Appeal, First District, for Justice Harry Low, the first Chinese American appointed to the Court. After finishing his clerkship, he accepted a position as a law associate at the San Francisco office of Morrison and Foerster.
Yaki was asked to by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to work for her as her District Director. In that capacity, Yaki supervised her San Francisco office but also began advising her on the whole range of issues facing the Congresswoman. Yaki became her liaison to the City and County of San Francisco, but was also active in her policies regarding China, transportation, and the conversion of defense installations at the Presidio of San Francisco, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, and Treasure Island. During President Clinton's campaign in 1992, Pelosi was asked by the Democratic National Committee to be a co-chair of the Platform Committee. In that role, Yaki was her primary staffer, working closely with then-candidate Clinton's campaign in the drafting and passage of the Platform.
In 1995, Yaki was asked by Willie Brown, the Speaker of the California State Assembly to help him with his run for mayor. After Brown won, speculation ensued as to whether Yaki would join the new Administration and in what position. In Brown's first news conference, he announced that he was appointing Yaki to fill the unexpired term of Supervisor Terence Hallinan, who had been elected District Attorney.
Yaki was sworn in on February 6, 1996. One of his first actions was organizing a Children and Youth Summit in the City. He was elected to a full four year term in November, 1996.
Yaki was well known for his ability to broker compromises and make difficult deals, particularly when it came to thorny development issues in San Francisco. In his first months on the Board, he brokered a compromise allowing the city-wide installation of cellular towers in the still-infancy of the industry. Among the other high-profile projects he authored and shepherded through the Board included the building of the San Francisco Giants ballpark, the Mission Bay development plan, the downtown Bloomingdale's project, reforming and reorganizing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and building an underground parking garage for Golden Gate Park He also saved a nonprofit, the Family Service Agency, from eviction, brokering a deal using City and private funds.
Yaki chaired the Economic Development and Telecommunications Committee from 1997-1999, was elected by his colleagues to head the San Francisco County Transportation Authority in 1999. He also served as a Director of the Golden Gate Bridge District, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the San Francisco Public Employees Retirement System. On the SFPERs, he authored a resolution that resulted in the pension fund being among the first in the nation to divest it tobacco stocks. He also served as a member of the Executive Committee of the California State Association of Counties.
As a member of the Commission from 2005-2008, Yaki was the frequent voice of dissent on the Commission, which had four members appointed by then-President George W. Bush, and four members appointed by Congress split equally between Democrats and Republicans. His first dissent was on a Commission report attacking affirmative action in contracting, where his dissent was longer than the majority report.
In 2009, the Republican majority on the Commission began attacking the Obama Administration for its decision in the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case where Yaki was adamantly opposed what he believed was a "partisan" and "kangaroo court" approach to the case by the majority. Yaki, and his colleague, Arlan Melendez, issued a scathing dissent of the report, alleging that it lacked "political and intellectual integrity" from the outset.
In 2012, Yaki called for the Commission to launch an investigation into Stand-your-ground laws in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting. The Commission will be considering the matter during their 2013 calendar.
Beginning in 2009, Yaki founded his own consulting firm, Michael Yaki Consulting. Working from San Francisco, Yaki provides strategic advice and policy management to businesses and individuals primarily in California and Washington DC.
Beginning in 2012, Yaki became the on-air political analyst for KRON4-TV in San Francisco. He provides political and legal analysis and commentary on breaking and important national, state, and local issues.
In 1999, Yaki wrote his first op-ed for the New York Times on the confusion over applicable laws governing cable television franchises because of the failure of the federal government to deal with it in a coherent manner. He went on to write 4 more op-eds for the Times through 2000.
Yaki has also written op-eds for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Fort Worth Star Telegram. He is a blogger for the Huffington Post, and now writes on his own blog at yakiblog.tumblr.com
Yaki lives in San Francisco, California with his wife, Kristina. He is of mixed Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian ancestry. His mother's father was a senior diplomat for the government of China at the League of Nations, and his father retired as a senior diplomat for the U.S. State Department.