In Memoriam: James Shigeta, 85, an Asian American pioneer in Hollywood

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Yesterday, Hollywood Reporter broke the news that James Shigeta, one of Hollywood’s most prominent Asian American actors of the 1960’s, passed away at the age of 85.

Shigeta broke into Hollywood at a time when Asian Americans still represented less than 1% of America. This was a time in Hollywood when racial minorities were still virtually unseen in front of (or behind) the camera. The use of overt blackface and yellowface — although in its waning years — remained an acceptable aspect of film and television entertainment, in conjunction with damning stereotypes. Hollywood’s attitudes towards racial minorities reflected popular America’s general intolerance: Jim Crow segregation was still alive and well in the Deep South. The Civil Rights Movement was still building steam. Less than two decades prior, the US government had forcibly incarcerated Japanese Americans in American concentration camps.

This was the Hollywood — and the American cultural landscape — that James Shigeta courageously broke his way into.

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A handsome Nisei Japanese American born in Hawaii, James Shigeta served over two years as a U.S. Marine in the Korean War before setting his sights on a career in entertainment. Shigeta initially developed his popularity in the United States under the European-sounding stage name Guy Brion. Like many Asian American stars of the era (including Bruce Lee) and even today, Shigeta’s eventual success required first building an overseas fan following in Asia, where audiences were more willing to accept a celebrity of colour. Upon discharge from the US Marines, Shigeta was signed by Toho Studios in Tokyo under his given name, and eventually became known as the “Frank Sinatra of Japan”.

Eventually, Shigeta was able to return to the United States as a crossover singing sensation, opening the doors to his eventual film career. Shigeta’s first film role was in the Crimson Kimono, a 1959 detective story featuring Shigeta in the role of an unaccented Asian detective entangled in a love triangle with the film’s White male and female leads; Wikipedia notes that, for its era, this role was alone groundbreaking for an Asian American actor.

Shigeta appeared in several other roles throughout the 1960’s, including his appearance in the 1961 Oscar-nominated film adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song as Wang Ta. Although the 1960’s would ultimately end up being Shigeta’s hey-day, Shigeta continued to find work in Hollywood in film and television throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s until as recently as five years ago. Younger audiences will remember Shigeta as the villainous Japanese executive Joseph Takagi in Die Hard, and his final film role was in 2009 in the independent Asian American film The People I’ve Slept With, written by Quentin Lee.

Shigeta was a recipient of a shared Golden Globe in 1960 for Most Promising Male Newcomer, and was also awarded the lifetime achievement “Visionary Award” by East-West Players in 2005.

James Shigeta was a pioneer and fixture for Asian American film, and an inspiration for many of today’s Asian American actors for his breakthrough celebrity status during a decade when most Asian Americans still struggled to be seen as American. Today, we mourn the passing of a true star, who paved the way for all the young Asian Americans contributing to film, TV and the arts in the 21st century.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Shigeta’s age at the time of his death.

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