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.