Mako: Pioneering Japanese-American Actor in Hollywood

Mako Iwamatsu was a pioneering Japanese-American actor who opened the doors for Asian Americans to Hollywood. He was best-known for his Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated role as Po-Han, the Chinese engine-room attendant, in 1966’s The Sand Pebbles starring Steve McQueen.

Mako was born in Kobe, Japan, on December 10, 1933. He was the son of the noted children’s book author and illustrator Taro Yashima. At age15, Mako moved to the United States to join his parents who had emigrated there earlier. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1956.

After his service in the U.S. military, he embarked on a career in film and theater. He studied at the Pasadena Community Playhouse and made his first screen appearance in 1959.

Mako fought to get Asian actors better roles in Hollywood. Frustrated by the stereotyped and caricatured roles offered to himself and other Asian Americans, he co-founded an Asian-American theater company, the East/West Players, with six other actors in 1965, where he trained many Asian American actors and playwrights.

Over his 40-year career, Mako appeared in over 80 movies. His performance in movies and theater put him as a serious Asian-American actor in Hollywood. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1966’s The Sand Pebbles, and for a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for the 1976 musical Pacific Overtures.

Mako also appeared in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in the 1977 film Seven years in Tibet. He played Admiral Yamamoto in the 2001 film Pearl Harbor and the 1999 Japanese film Owls’ Castle directed by Masahiro Shinoda. In 2005, he had a cameo role in Memoirs of Geisha.

Mako has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7095 Hollywood Blvd.

Mako Iwamatsu died of esophageal cancer at his home on July 21, 2006. He was 72. “He is reversed as sort of the godfather of Asian American theater,” cited Tim Dang, artistic director of East/West Players in a tribute to Mako.