Sessue Hayakawa

Kintaro Hayakawa (June 10, 1886 – November 23, 1973), known professionally as Sessue Hayakawa, was a Japanese actor and a matinée idol. He was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1910s and early 1920s. Hayakawa was the first actor of Asian descent to achieve stardom as a leading man in the United States and Europe. His "broodingly handsome"[2] good looks and typecasting as a sexually dominant villain made him a heartthrob among American women during a time of racial discrimination, and he became one of the first male sex symbols of Hollywood.[3][4][5]

Sessue Hayakawa
Hayakawa, 1918
Native name
早川 雪洲 (Hayakawa Sesshū)
早川 金太郎 (Hayakawa Kintarō)

(1886-06-10)June 10, 1886
DiedNovember 23, 1973(1973-11-23) (aged 87)
Years active1914–1966
Tsuru Aoki
(m. 1914; died 1961)

He made his breakthrough in The Cheat (1915), and thereafter became famous for his roles as a forbidden lover. Hayakawa was a highly paid star of his time, earning $3,500 a week in 1919[6] and $2 million through his own production company from 1918 to 1920.[7] Because of rising anti-Japanese sentiment and business difficulties,[8] Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922 and performed on Broadway and in Japan and Europe for many years before making his Hollywood comeback in Daughter of the Dragon (1931).[9]

Of his talkies, Hayakawa is probably best known for his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.[10] Hayakawa starred in over 80 feature films, and three of his films (The Cheat, The Dragon Painter, and The Bridge on the River Kwai) stand in the United States National Film Registry.[11][12][13]

Early life and career

Hayakawa was born Kintaro Hayakawa (早川 金太郎, Hayakawa Kintarō) in the village of Nanaura, now part of a town called Chikura, in the city of Minamibōsō in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on June 10, 1886.[14][15][16] From a young age he yearned to go overseas and took on English studies in preparation. His father was a head of fishermen's union with some wealth. He had five siblings.[10]

From an early age, Hayakawa's family intended him to become an officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy. However, while a student at the naval academy in Etajima, he swam to the bottom of a lagoon (he grew up in a shellfish diving community) on a dare and ruptured his eardrum. The injury caused him to fail the navy physical. His father felt shame and embarrassment by his son's failure and this drove a wedge between them. The strained relationship drove the 18-year-old Hayakawa to attempt seppuku (ritual suicide).[15] One evening, Hayakawa entered a shed on his parents' property and prepared the venue. He put his dog outside and attempted to uphold his family's samurai tradition by stabbing himself more than 30 times in the abdomen. The barking dog brought Hayakawa's parents to the scene and his father used an axe to break down the door, saving his life.[17]

After he recovered from the suicide attempt, Hayakawa moved to the United States and began to study political economics at the University of Chicago to fulfill his family's new wish that he become a banker. While a student, he played quarterback for the football team and was once penalized for using jujitsu to bring down an opponent.[17][18][19] Hayakawa graduated from the University of Chicago in 1912, and subsequently made plans to return to Japan.[20] He traveled to Los Angeles and awaited a transpacific steamship. During his stay, he discovered the Japanese Theatre in Little Tokyo and became fascinated with acting and performing plays. It was around this time that Hayakawa first assumed the stage name Sessue (雪洲, Sesshū), meaning "snowy field" (雪 means "snow" and 洲 means "north field").[17][21] One of the productions in which Hayakawa performed was called The Typhoon. Tsuru Aoki, a member of the acting troupe, was so impressed with Hayakawa's abilities and enthusiasm that she enticed film producer Thomas H. Ince to see the play.[15] Ince saw the production and offered to turn it into a silent film with the original cast. Anxious to return to Japan, Hayakawa tried to dissuade Ince by requesting the then-astronomic fee of $500 a week, but Ince agreed to his request.[17] However according to Daisuke Miyao, professor of Japanese language and literature at UC San Diego, Hayakawa’s turn to acting was in reality less dramatic. There are no records of him at University of Chicago, in course enrollments or football team rosters or otherwise. His acting career likely followed a series of odd jobs in California: dishwasher, waiter, ice cream vendor, and factory worker. His theatrical appearances seemed like another temporary pursuit.[22] Author Orie Nakagawa writes that Hayakawa had always aimed to go to California, his plan being to first help his older brother who was working in San Francisco, and that it was only his father who had convinced him to study at Chicago, and so Hayakawa left his studies in his first year to head where he wanted to go in the first place.[10]

The Typhoon (1914) became an instant hit and was followed by two additional pictures produced by Ince, The Wrath of the Gods (1914) co-starring Hayakawa's new wife, Aoki, and The Sacrifice (1914). With Hayakawa's rising stardom, Jesse L. Lasky soon offered Hayakawa a contract, which he accepted, making him part of Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount Pictures).[17][23][24]


"White women were willing to give themselves to a Japanese man. ... When Sessue was getting out of his limousine in front of a theater of a premiere showing, he grimaced a little because there was a puddle. Then, dozens of female fans surrounding his car fell over one another to spread their fur coats at his feet."

—Miyatake Toko, a celebrity photographer in early 1900s Los Angeles[25]

Hayakawa's second film for Famous Players-Lasky was The Cheat (1915), directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The Cheat co-starred Fannie Ward as Hayakawa's love interest and was a huge success, making Hayakawa a romantic idol and sex symbol to the female movie-going public.[3][4][5] "It caused a sensation," says Stephen Gong, the executive director of San Francisco's Center for Asian American Media. "The idea of the rape fantasy, forbidden fruit, all those taboos of race and sex—it made him a movie star. And his most rabid fan base was white women."[26] With his popularity and "broodingly handsome"[2][27] good looks, Hayakawa commanded a salary that reached over $3,500 a week at the height of his fame in 1919.[6][28] In 1917, he built his residence, a castle-styled mansion, at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Argyle Street in Hollywood, which was a local landmark until it was demolished in 1956.[17]

Following The Cheat, Hayakawa became a leading man for romantic dramas in the 1910s and early 1920s.[29][30] He also began acting in Westerns and action films.[23] Sought after for roles, but dissatisfied with being constantly typecast, Hayakawa decided to form his own production company.[15][26] There is some lack of clarity on how Haworth Pictures Corporation got its original funding. Hayakawa offered two versions, one in his autobiography of William Joseph Connery, a fellow University of Chicago alumnus introducing him to A.B.C. Dohrmann, the president of a china and glassware company in San Francisco who was willing to pay one million dollars to establish the company, and one where Connery's own parents were multimillionaire coal mine owners who provided the million dollars.[31]

Over the next three years, Hayakawa produced 23 films and had earned $2 million by 1920, of which he was able to pay back the 1 million he had loaned from Connery.[32] Hayakawa produced, starred in, and contributed to the design, writing, editing, and directing of the films. Critics hailed Hayakawa's understated, Zen-influenced acting style. Hayakawa sought to bring muga, or the "absence of doing", to his performances, in direct contrast to the then-popular studied poses and broad gestures.[17] In 1918, Hayakawa personally chose the American serial actress Marin Sais to appear opposite him in a series of films, the first being the racial drama The City of Dim Faces (1918), followed by His Birthright (1918), which also starred Aoki. His collaboration with Sais ended with Bonds of Honor (1919). Hayakawa also appeared opposite Jane Novak in The Temple of Dusk (1918) and Aoki in The Dragon Painter (1919). According to Goldsea Hayakawa's fame rivaled that of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore. Hayakawa drove a gold plated Pierce-Arrow and entertained lavishly in his "Castle", which was known as the scene of some of Hollywood's wildest parties. Shortly before Prohibition took effect in 1920, he bought a large supply of liquor, leading him to joke that he owed his social success to his liquor supply.[17] He took Aoki on a trip to Monaco where he gambled at the Monte Carlo Casino.[10]

Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922, for which different authors give various explanations such as prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment and business difficulties.[17][33][26] Nakagawa focuses on three events in particular: firstly on the set of The Swamp his appendix ruptured and while he was at the hospital there was an attempt to usurp his insurance money, secondly there was a baseless tabloid report that Aoki had attempted suicide, and thirdly Hayakawa believed there was also an attempt on his life by the Robertson-Cole Pictures Corporation (also accused of supporting anti-Japanese legislation) for insurance money by the collapse of an unsafe earthquake sequence on the set of The Vermilion Pencil,[10] leading to him suing the studio.[34] He visited Japan with Aoki for the first time since he had come to the US. He returned back soon after however and played the lead role in Tiger Lily on Broadway in 1923.[33] The next decade and a half saw him also perform in Japan and Europe.[35][36] In London, Hayakawa starred in The Great Prince Shan (1924) and The Story of Su (1924). In 1925, he wrote a novel, The Bandit Prince, and adapted it into a short play. In 1930, Hayakawa performed in Samurai, a one-act play written specifically for him, in front of Great Britain's King George V and Queen Mary. Hayakawa became widely known in France, where audiences "enthusiastically embraced" him and made his French debut, La Bataille (1923), a critical and financial success.[37] German audiences found Hayakawa "sensational" and in Russia he was considered one of the "wonderful actors" of America.[38] In addition to numerous Japanese films, Hayakawa also produced a Japanese-language stage version of The Three Musketeers.[17] In the initial decades of his career, Hayakawa established himself as the first leading man of Asian descent in American and European cinema.[39][40][41] He was also the first non-Caucasian actor to achieve international stardom.[42]

Later career

Returning to the United States again in 1926 to appear on Broadway—and later in vaudeville—Hayakawa opened a Zen temple and study hall on New York’s Upper West Side.[22] Hayakawa later transitioned into doing talkies; his return to Hollywood and sound film debut came in Daughter of the Dragon (1931), starring opposite Chinese American performer Anna May Wong.[9] His accent didn't go over well when sound was added to movies.[43][44] Hayakawa played a Samurai in the German-Japanese co-production The Daughter of the Samurai (1937). The same year, Hayakawa went to France to perform in Yoshiwara (1937), but ended up trapped in the country and separated from his family when the German occupation of France began in 1940. Hayakawa made few films in the following years, but financially supported himself by selling his watercolor paintings. He became friends with writer Jirōhachi Satsuma who was also stuck in France.[10] Goldsea states that he joined the French Resistance and helped Allied flyers during World War II,[17] although Nakagawa lists mainly helping the local Japanese community during the war and after. His nomadic lifestyle continued until 1950.[45]

In 1949, Humphrey Bogart's production company located Hayakawa and offered him a role in Tokyo Joe. Before issuing a work permit, the American Consulate investigated Hayakawa's activities during the war and found that he had in no way contributed to the German war effort. Hayakawa followed Tokyo Joe with Three Came Home (1950), in which he played real-life POW camp commander Lieutenant-Colonel Suga, before returning to France.[17]

After the war, Hayakawa's on-screen roles can best be described as "the honorable villain", a figure exemplified by his portrayal of Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Hayakawa earned a nomination for the Best Supporting Actor;[44] he was also nominated for a Golden Globe for the role that he called the highlight of his career. After the film, Hayakawa largely retired from acting. Throughout the following years he performed guest appearances on a handful of television shows and films, making his final performance in the animated film The Daydreamer (1966).[41]

After retiring, Hayakawa dedicated himself to Zen Buddhism, became an ordained Zen master, worked as a private acting coach, and authored his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way.[41]

Racial barriers

Throughout Hayakawa's career, many segments of the American society were filled with feelings of anti-Japanese sentiment, partly from nationalism rising from World War I and World War II.[46] This left Hayakawa constantly typecast as a villain or forbidden lover and unable to play parts that would be given to white actors such as Douglas Fairbanks. Hayakawa stated: "Such roles [in The Wrath of the Gods, The Typhoon, and The Cheat] are not true to our Japanese nature... They are false and give people a wrong idea of us. I wish to make a characterization which shall reveal us as we really are."[47] In 1949, he lamented, "My one ambition is to play a hero."[48] Hayakawa can be seen as a precursor to Rudolph Valentino, 9 years his junior. Both were foreign born, typecast as exotic or forbidden lovers, wildly popular for their time. His contract with Famous Players expired in May 1918, but the studio still asked him to star in The Sheik. Hayakawa refused the picture in favor of starting his own company, most likely not happy with another "forbidden villain lover" role. With influence from June Mathis, the role went to the barely known Valentino and turned him into a screen icon overnight.[17]

In 1930, the Production Code came into effect (enforced after 1934) which forbade portrayals of miscegenation in film. This meant that unless Hayakawa's co-star was an Asian actress, he would not be able to portray a romance with her.[40] Hayakawa was in a unique position due to his ethnicity and fame in the English-speaking world. Due to naturalization laws of that time, Hayakawa would be unable to become a U.S. citizen[49] and because of anti-miscegenation laws he could not marry someone of another race.[50]

Hayakawa's early films were not popular in Japan because many felt that his roles portrayed an image of Japanese men being sadistic and cruel. Many Japanese viewers found this portrayal—which made him popular in the U.S.—insulting. Nationalistic groups in particular were censorious.[51] Some Japanese believed that Hayakawa was contributing to increased anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S., and regarded him as a traitor to the Japanese people. After Hayakawa established himself as an American superstar, the negative tone in the press that regarded him as a national and racial shame lessened by noticiable degree, and Japanese media started publicizing Hayakawa's cinematic achievements instead.[52] His later films were also not popular, because he was seen as "too Americanized" during a time of nationalism.[53]

Personal life

On May 1, 1914, Hayakawa married fellow Issei and performer Tsuru Aoki, who co-starred in several of his films. Hayakawa's first child, a son, was born in New York in 1929, to a white actress named Ruth Noble,[54] a vaudeville co-performer from The Bandit Prince.[55] Noble sued for custody but lost the case. The boy was known as Alexander Hayes, but the name was changed to Yukio after Sessue and Aoki adopted the child and took him to be raised and educated in Japan. Later, they adopted two more daughters:[17] Yoshiko, an actress, and Fujiko, a dancer. Aoki died in 1961.[56]

Physically, Hayakawa possessed "an athlete's physique and agility".[2] A 1917 profile on Hayakawa stated that he "is proficient in jiu-jitsu, an expert fencer, and can swim like a fish. He is a good horseman and plays a fast tennis racket. He is tall for a Japanese, being five feet seven and a half inches in height, and weighs 157 pounds."[57]

Hayakawa was known for his discipline and martial arts skills. While filming The Jaguar's Claws, in the Mojave Desert, Hayakawa played a Mexican bandit, with 500 cowboys as extras. On the first night of filming, the extras drank all night and well into the next day. No work was being done, so Hayakawa challenged the group to a fight. Two men stepped forward. Hayakawa said of the 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." Hayakawa then disarmed yet another cowboy. The extras returned to work, amused by the way the small man manhandled the big bruising cowboys.[17]

Death and legacy

Hayakawa retired from film in 1966. He died in Tokyo on November 23, 1973, from a cerebral thrombosis, complicated by pneumonia.[17] He was buried in the Chokeiji Temple Cemetery in Toyama, Japan.[58][59]

Many of Hayakawa's films are lost. However, most of his later works, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Jerry Lewis comedy The Geisha Boy in which Hayakawa lampoons his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Swiss Family Robinson, Tokyo Joe, and Three Came Home are available on DVD. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Hayakawa was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1645 Vine Street, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.[20]

A musical based on Hayakawa's life, Sessue, played in Tokyo in 1989. In September 2007, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective on Hayakawa's work entitled: Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met. Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima had planned to create a biopic entitled Hollywood Zen based on Hayakawa's life. The script had been allegedly completed and set to film in Los Angeles, but due to constant delays and the eventual death of Oshima himself in 2013, the project went unrealized.[60][61]

His lasting legacy is large especially to the Asian-American community.[62][63] Media professor Karla Rae Fuller wrote in 2010: "What is even more remarkable about Hayakawa's precedent-setting career in Hollywood as an Asian American is the fact that he is virtually ignored in film history as well as star studies. ... Furthermore, the fact that he reached such a rare level of success whereby he could form and run his own production company makes his omission from the narrative of Hollywood history even more egregious."[35]


See also



  1. Chuong, Chung (1999). Distinguished Asian Americans: A Biographical Dictionary. Greenwood. p. 111. ISBN 978-0313289026.
  2. Saltz, Rachel (2007-09-07). "Sessue Hayakawa: East And West, When The Twain Met". The New York Times.
  3. Miyao 2007, pp. 1–3, 191, 227, 281
  4. Prasso, Sheridan (2006). The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient. PublicAffairs. p. 124. ISBN 978-1586483944.
  5. Warner, Jennifer (2014). The Tool of the Sea: The Life and Times of Anna May Wong. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. p. 8. ISBN 978-1502403643.
  6. Miyao 2007, pp. 334, 325
  7. Miyao 2007, p. 176
  8. Miyao 2007, p. 227
  9. Miyao 2007, p. 263
  10. Nakagawa, Orie (2012). Sesshū! : sekai o miryōshita Nihonjin sutā Hayakawa Sesshū. Kodansha. ISBN 978-4062179157.
  11. Eaton, William J. (15 December 1993). "Out of the Vault and Onto the Film Registry's List : Movies: Some of the Library of Congress' newly selected classics and popular favorites will make a nationwide tour next September". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 25 November 2019.
  12. Tsutakawa, Mayumi (2 March 2017). "STG presents Sessue Hayakawa in The Dragon Painter". International Examiner. Retrieved 25 November 2019.
  13. "Complete list of films admitted". CNN. 18 November 1997. Archived from the original on 2011-01-31. Retrieved 25 November 2019.
  14. Miyao 2007, p. 241
  15. Kizirian, Shari. The Dragon Painter. Silent Film Festival.
  16. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961). p. 179.
  17. "Sessue Hayakawa: The Legend". Goldsea.
  18. Locke, Michelle. IN THE SILENT MOVIE ERA, HAYAKAWA BROKE HEARTS. Deseret News.
  19. King, James. Under Foreign Eyes. p. 18.
  20. Sessue Hayakawa - Hollywood Star Walk. Los Angeles Times.
  21. Chin, Frank. Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889-1947. p. 14.
  22. Monaghan, Amy (2018). "Art and artifice". University of Chicago Magazine. 111 (1). Retrieved 24 November 2019.
  23. Miyao 2007, p. 55
  24. Daniel Bernardi, ed. (1996). The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema. Rutgers University Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-0813522760.
  25. Miyao 2007, p. 1
  26. Venutolo, Anthony (2008-03-08). "Cinema can't keep up with Hayakawa's strides". The Star-Ledger. Newark: Retrieved 2013-03-09.
  27. Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. p. 111–112.
  28. Miyao 2007, p. 214
  29. "COUNTERPUNCH LETTERS: What Really Counts in Opera? Depends Whom You Ask". Los Angeles Times. 1993-06-21. Retrieved 2013-03-09.
  30. Bernardi, p. 71.
  31. Miyao 2007, p. 303
  32. Miyao 2007, p. 50
  33. Miyao 2007, p. 261
  34. Miyao 2007, p. 226
  35. Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film. p. 22.
  36. Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s. p. 110.
  37. Miyao 2007, p. 5
  38. Miyao 2007, p. 3
  39. "Obituary-Sessue Hayakawa". Variety. 1973-11-28. p. 62.
  40. Lee, Juilia H (2011-10-01). Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896–1937. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-5256-2.
  41. Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the silent era to 1965, Volume 1. p. 318.
  42. Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema. p. 78.
  43. King, Rachel (5 December 2016). "One of the First Hollywood Heartthrobs Was a Smoldering Japanese Actor. What Happened?". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
  44. "Watch: This Japanese actor dominated the silent film era—and went on to fight Asian stereotypes". Timeline. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
  45. Miyao 2007, p. 260
  46. Miyao 2007, pp. 30, 33–34
  47. Miyao 2007, p. 153
  48. Archerd, Army (7 December 2006). "1957: 'Bridge' from Hayakawa to Watanabe". Variety. Retrieved 28 November 2019.
  49. Miyao 2007, p. 6
  50. Leong, Karen (2005). The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. University of California Press. pp. 181–182. ISBN 978-0520244238.
  51. Wada, Hirofumi (2004). Pari Nihonjin no shinsho chizu 1867–1945 [Japanese Impressions of Paris]. Tokyo: Fujiwara Shoten. pp. 61–62.
  52. Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s. p. 111–112.
  53. Richie, Donald (2007-08-12). "Lauded in the West, ignored in the East". The Japan Times. Retrieved 2013-03-09.
  54. Miyao, Daisuke (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema. Oxford University Press. p. 265. ISBN 9780199731664.
  55. Miyao 2014, p. 162-163
  56. "Ruth Noble Bids Sessue Goodbye". Elmira Star-Gazette. 1931-12-17.
  57. Goodwin's Weekly, Volume 28. p. 12.
  58. "Sessue Hayakawa (1889 – 1973)". 2004-05-01. Retrieved 2013-03-09.
  59. "Bridge commander dies of pneumonia". Playground Daily News. Fort Walton Beach, Florida. 1973-11-25. p. 8. Retrieved 2014-12-10 via
  60. Schilling, Mark (2013-01-17). "Nagisa Oshima: a leading force in film". The Japan Times. The Japan Times. Retrieved 2014-12-21.
  61. "Gil Rossellini Interview with Nagsia Oshima (Part 3 of 3)". YouTube. YouTube. Event occurs at 3:15. Retrieved 2014-12-21. Yes, I am planning to shoot a story of a Japanese. His name is Sessue Hayakawa. He was the only Japanese star in Hollywood. It was the 1910s silent film period of Hollywood. I will try to describe this star and the situation of the Japanese in the states.
  62. Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea. p. 284.
  63. Embodying Asian/American Sexualities. p. 67.


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