While the entertainment industry has never exactly been a bastion of diversity, fascinatingly, a century ago in fledgling Hollywood, during the so called “Yellow Peril” era no less, one of their most bankable heartthrobs and one of the highest paid actors of the age was a Japanese man- Hayakawa Kintarō, better known by his stage name, Sessue Hayakawa.
Born in 1889 in the city of Minamibosō, the son of the governor of the Chiba prefecture, Hayakawa initially harboured dreams of being an officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy. Groomed for the life of a warrior under the Bushido code, when he was of sufficient age, he attended the Naval Academy in Etajima. Unfortunately, Hayakawa’s dreams of Naval glory were shattered when, on a dare, he attempted to swim to the bottom of a nearby lagoon at age 17 in 1907. Although he managed to reach the bottom, while doing so, he ruptured one of his eardrums- an injury that subsequently saw him fail an entrance examination for the Imperial Navy. Hayakawa’s father considered his failure to have dishonored the family, causing a rift between the two. Ashamed and no longer sure what to do with his life, an 18 year old Hayakawa attempted to commit ritual suicide using the weapon of one of his samurai ancestors.
Towards this end, Hayakawa subsequently locked himself in a garden shed and stabbed himself in the abdomen. Lucky for him, he had a dog. Not wanting the dog to interfere with his suicide, he locked the animal out of the shed, resulting in said dog barking incessantly at the door. Upon hearing this, Hayakawa’s father went out to investigate. Seeing his son lying in a pool of his own blood, he quickly broke the door down with an axe to get inside. Miraculously, Hayakawa survived.
During his recovery, father and son reconciled, and it was decided that if Hayakawa couldn’t join the military, the next best thing was if he became a successful businessman or politician like his father. Thus, his parents sent him to the University of Chicago to study political science and economics.
During his studies, Hayakawa’s smouldering good looks and chiseled physique made him a hit with those of the female persuasion. Things only improved on that front when he joined the university football team as a quarterback. It’s at this point we’d like to pause and point out that apparently one of Hayakawa’s favorite ways to avoid being tackled by opposing players was to do things like judo flip over them. He further supposedly was once given a penalty for using his prodigious martial arts skills to take down an opposing player trying to tackle him.
Sometime in 1913, Hayakawa decided to vacation in LA where he happened upon a theatre in the “Little Tokyo” section of town and quickly became enamoured with the performances. Adopting the new name Sessue (meaning “snowy field”), Hayakawa began to star in a variety of stage plays, the most important of which being The Typhoon. His performance in that production caught the eye of famed producer Thomas Ince, who, among an incredible number of contributions to film history pioneered an assembly-line-like film making process that allowed him to make an astounding 800+ films during a 14 year span. That is, until his untimely death at the age of 44 aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht where he died of heart failure, though newspapers across the nation speculated he was actually murdered. In fact, the LA Times even claimed Ince had been shot. Others picked up on this angle, with most claiming Hearst himself had done the deed- a conspiracy theory that endured long after Ince’s death, despite witnesses, including Ince’s wife, claiming no such foul play occurred.
In any event, after seeing The Typhoon, Ince wanted to turn the play into a film, starring none other than Hayakawa. Hayakawa, who at this point was just acting for fun, particularly as it wasn’t exactly considered a respectable trade and certainly not something up to that point he’d told his family about, tried to politely turn down Ince’s request. Undeterred, Ince continued to badger him, with Hayakawa finally telling the producer he’d agree to star in the film if they paid him $500 dollars per week (about $11,000 today) during filming. Hayakawa reportedly assumed that nobody would be willing to pay the equivalent of a new car every week for an unknown, unproven Japanese actor.
To Hayakawa’s amazement, Ince said yes.
The film was a commercial and critical success, with Hayakawa in particular being praised for his dashing good looks and subdued acting style (described by many as “zen-like”). This was a style Hayakawa himself would call “muga” (variously described as “total absorption” or “absence of doing”), and was in stark contrast to the over exaggerated expressions and movements of pretty much every other silent film actor of the day.
Hayakawa was quickly contracted to act in a number of new movies, becoming a star across the United States. Not long after, he became an internationally known superstar thanks to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 The Cheat. In the film, he played a sexually charged, villainous ivory merchant opposite Fannie Ward, who Hayakawa’s character would literally use a branding iron on to mark as his woman. This role crystalised Hayakawa’s reputation as a sex icon and saw him being cast in many similar roles thereafter.
Unfortunately for him, it also saw significant media backlash both in Japan and in Japanese media outlets in America. As a result, in the re-release in 1918, Hayakawa’s character was changed in the text from Japanese to Burmese. As to why they picked Burmese, it was speculated by the author of Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, Robert Birchard that there weren’t “enough Burmese in the country to raise a credible protest.”
By 1917, Hayakawa was earning over a quarter of a million dollars per year (about $5 million today) for his services and decided to spend the money in perhaps the most baller way possible- building himself a literal giant castle and buying a gold-plated luxury car- a Pierce-Arrow- to drive around in.
To entertain himself, Hayakawa developed a habit for gambling large sums of money away on a whim. On one occasion at the Monte Carlo in 1926, he even managed to lose an astounding $965,000 (about $14 million today) in a single night. Why this instance is particularly remembered, beyond the incredible amount he lost, is that this same night at that same casino a wealthy Japanese businessman lost everything and ended up committing suicide directly thereafter. In the aftermath, some media outlets misreported that it was Hayakawa who had killed himself after sustaining the near million dollar loss.
When he wasn’t gambling, Hayakawa spent the equivalent of millions in modern dollars throwing lavish, hedonistic parties for his Hollywood friends, with his castle becoming particularly popular after Prohibition thanks to Hayakawa having the foresight to purchase an obscene amount of alcohol to last for years’ worth of parties. Of this, Hayakawa once joked that he was only popular among his peers in Hollywood because he had booze.
In truth, Hayakawa was near-universally respected by most in the industry for his honorable nature, kindness, and extremely strong and no-nonsense work ethic. On that latter point, while filming The Jaguar’s Claws in the Mojave Desert, after just one day of filming, the 500 or so cowboys he had hired as extras decided to get properly tipsy, and remained such into the following day, with little interest in actually working at that point.
To get them back to work, Hayakawa challenged all 500 of them to a fight- at the same time. If they could beat him, they could continue carousing. If he beat them, they had to get back to work. Three of the cowboys took him up on the offer, no doubt thinking they’d handily crush the much smaller Japanese man. Said Hayakawa of this incident: “The first one struck out at me. I seized his arm and sent him flying on his face along the rough ground. The second attempted to grapple and I was forced to flip him over my head and let him fall on his neck. The fall knocked him unconscious.”
Reportedly a third drew a gun on him, and was promptly disarmed by the lightning fast Hayakawa. After that, everyone got back to work.
As you might imagine, many of Hayakawa’s antics were voraciously consumed by the media who published extensive exposés on the Japanese superstar, which only added to his mystique and popularity with his biggest fans- the ladies.
Contemporary reports from the period reveal that screenings of Hayakawa’s films would routinely be filled largely with young women who’d scream incessantly whenever he appeared onscreen- no doubt not only enjoying his good looks, but also his calm and collected portrayals of the bad boy or forbidden lover characters that he so often appeared as.
Despite being a symbol of pure sex, an interesting thing to note was that in the films themselves, Hayakawa was almost never actually allowed to get the girl, even in the ones where he was the primary love interest, nearly always losing the girl in the final act.
You see, at the time Hayakawa was a star, the idea of a Japanese man with a white woman was scandalous to the extreme, despite that the theaters were lined with said white women coming to see the Japanese heartthrob.
The attitude was so prevalent that anti-miscegenation laws were in place across the United States. Technically this wasn’t a rule Hollywood had to follow in film, since anti-miscegenation rules for film production weren’t officially implemented until the the 1930s Production Code. However, it was an unwritten rule firmly followed outside of a few exceptions, such as when Chinese star Anna May Wong starred in the 1922 film The Toll of the Sea opposite Kenneth Harlan. In the film, their respective characters get married and even have a child together. (And as a quick aside, beyond being well ahead of its time in depicting such a relationship, the film also was a color one, rather than black and white.)
In any event, as previously alluded to, this prohibition on interracial relationship inevitably saw Hayakawa usually cast as either a “forbidden lover” or villain, outside of times he stared alongside his Japanese-born wife and pioneering star in her own right, Tsuru Aoki, who had also been discovered by Ince.
As you might expect, Hayakawa loathed this typecasting, particularly playing the bad guy, and was vocal about how Hollywood refused to cast him in a heroic role despite his extreme popularity and bankability, for a time on par with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and other such superstars.
In his native Japan, Hayakawa’s roles were similarly criticised as being an unfair and insulting misrepresentations of Japanese men. As a result, his early films were extremely unpopular and even occasionally banned in the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, some considered Hayakawa himself a traitor to his own people via the extreme popularity of his films helping to solidify negative perceptions of the Japanese.
To try to get around the problem, when Hayakawa’s contract with Paramount expired in 1918, rather than re-signing and accepting what would have been a rather lucrative role in The Sheik, Hayakawa took matters into his own hands and started his own production company, Haworth Pictures Corp. Now with complete control over all facets of production, he was able to cast himself in less stereotypical and much more positive roles. Audiences loved it, with Hayakawa becoming one of the highest earning and best known leading men in all of Hollywood, profiting around $2M (about $25 million today) per year from his films at his peak.
However, by the 1930s Hayakawa’s production studio and his own popularity in the states had begun to wane considerably due to rising anti-Japanese sentiments amongst the population, combined with the fact that the transition to speaking roles was not exactly ideal in that climate owing to his thick Japanese accent.
Trying to find roles outside of his own studio in Hollywood likewise was an effort in futility. Parts for a Japanese sex symbol were no longer available in the era when virtually every single other Asian character was being portrayed as… well, we’ll just go with “less than flattering ways”, resulting in most of these parts usually cast with Mexicans and Native Americans as few Asian Americans were willing to take the roles.
Things came to a head when Hayakawa’s own business partner and distributor publicly referred to him as a “chink” (a racial slur against the Chinese), prompting the actor to angrily confront him, stating: “I am not a Chink. I am a Japanese gentleman. And the word ‘Chink’ is not fit to be spoke!”
All of this combined caused Hayakawa to have to leave Hollywood to pursue work in Europe where attitudes were a little more open. During this time, he also briefly tried to see if he could make a go of it in Japan, but this was the one place in the world where Hayakawa, while still very famous, wasn’t famous for positive reasons. Needless to say, it didn’t work out.
Unfortunately for Hayakawa, during one trip to France in the late 1930s to do some filming, the Germans decided to invade, resulting in the actor being trapped there for the duration of the war. Separated from his family and with little means to support himself outside of a few films that were being made, to get by, he sold watercolor paintings. On the side, Hayakawa reportedly assisted the French Resistance in some capacity, but it isn’t clear exactly how.
After WW2, Hayakawa was almost unemployable as an actor given the dislike the Japanese people had towards him and the general attitudes towards the Japanese in many parts of the rest of the world.
Things turned around for him thanks to Humphrey Bogart. Wanting Hayakawa for the character of Baron Kimura in the film Tokyo Joe, Bogart had his people track down Hayakawa and, when they found him in France, offered him the role, which he accepted. After an extensive investigation into his activities in France during the war, the U.S. finally gave in and allowed Hayakawa to return to America, with Tokyo Joe re-launching his career.
That said, with even more anti-Japanese sentiment following WWII, Hayakawa once again became deeply saddened by the state of Asian representation in Hollywood, noting in an interview in 1949 that “My one ambition is to play a hero” in a Hollywood production.
He would not, however, achieve this goal. What he did do was star in what is often considered his greatest performance, including by Hayakawa himself, in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai. In it, Hayakawa played the main antagonist, a Japanese POW commander, Colonel Saito. Widely praised, he was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Had he won, it would have tied him for the first Asian actor to win an Oscar, as Miyoshi Umeki was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the film Sayonara that very same year. As for The Bridge on the River Kwai, it went on to win 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, with Hayakawa’s nomination being the only one the film got that didn’t win.
Taking a variety of roles the subsequent few years, not long after his wife’s death in 1961, Hayakawa decided to return to Japan to spend more time with his three adopted children, as well as pursue Zen Buddhism, eventually becoming an ordained priest. While he still occasionally appeared in films, he finally fully retired in 1967 after 53 remarkable years in the industry.
Of course, at this point, Hayakawa was still not exactly a popular figure in Japan, but nonetheless stated in a no doubt zen-like calming tone, “Today in maturity nothing annoys me. I pity the man who tries to hurt me. Never am I angered. I feel only pity.”
He died of a blood clot at the age 84 on November 23, 1973. Summing up his life, Hayakawa stated, “Destiny has brought me much. She has been kind. But it has been left to me to fashion the acumen of deeds in the pattern destiny has drawn, to solve the great koan of life for myself.”
This article was originally published on Today I Found Out
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius