James Shigeta
Shigeta in a publicity photo for Japanese film magazine, 1962
James Saburo Shigeta

(1929-06-17)June 17, 1929
DiedJuly 28, 2014(2014-07-28) (aged 85)
Resting placeNational Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
  • Actor
  • vocalist
Years active1959–2009
Musical career
GenresTraditional pop, big band, jazz
InstrumentsVocals, piano
LabelsToho Records, Choreo Records, Decca, Ava Records
Military career
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchUnited States Marine Corps
Years of service1951–1954
RankStaff sergeant

James Saburo Shigeta (June 17, 1929 – July 28, 2014) was an American actor, singer, and musician of Japanese descent.[1] He was noted for his roles in The Crimson Kimono (1959), Walk Like a Dragon (1960), Flower Drum Song (1961), Bridge to the Sun (1961), Die Hard (1988), and Mulan (1998). In 1960, he won the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer – Male, along with three other actors.

In his early career, Shigeta often played romantic male lead roles, which were almost nonexistent for an actor of Asian descent during his time, making him a trailblazer in Asian American representation in media.[2][3] The Goldsea Asian-American Daily magazine listed him as one of the "Most Inspiring Asian-Americans Of All Time".[4]

Before his Hollywood career he found success as a pop singer and performer abroad, especially in Japan and Australia.

Early life

Born in the Territory of Hawaii in 1929 as a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American,[5] Shigeta was a 1947 graduate of President Theodore Roosevelt High School, and studied drama at New York University. After completing ROTC, he enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard's 298th Infantry, prior to his 1951 enlistment in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. He served for two-and-a-half years, and rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant.[6][7][8][9]


Singing career

Shigeta entered and won first prize on Ted Mack's television talent show, The Original Amateur Hour.[10] Embarking on a singing career in Los Angeles, he teamed with Hawaiian operatic tenor Charles K.L. Davis. Their agent at the time gave them the non-ethnic sounding stage names of "Guy Brion" for Shigeta, and "Charles Durand" for Davis.[11] They developed a supper club musical career in the United States, singing at venues such as the Mocambo and the Los Angeles Players Club.[9][12] Despite that success, breaking into the movies eluded him.

During the Korean War Shigeta enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, where he entertained troops in California.[13] En route to Korea, the ceasefire led Shigeta to Japan, where he was discharged from the Marines and hired by the theatrical division of Toho Studios.[14]

Shigeta did not speak the Japanese language until Toho Studios in Tokyo invited him to be a musical star under his real name in Japan.[15] He spent years in that country, becoming a success in all media aspects—radio, television, stage, supper clubs, movies, recordings—being known as "The Frank Sinatra of Japan".[16]

In 1958, the Nichigeki Theatre in Tokyo exported their extravaganza Cherry Blossom Show to Australia with Shigeta as the male lead. The show was performed at the Empire Theatre in Sydney, Her Majesty's Theatre in Brisbane, the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, and Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne.[17] The show was a big success, with one Australian reviewer writing about Shigeta, "... has matinee idol good looks and a soothing baritone voice that should send the record companies mad for his autograph on recording contracts."[18]

Shigeta returned to the United States to sing on The Dinah Shore Show. By 1959 he was the star of the Shirley MacLaine–Steve Parker production of Holiday in Japan at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.[12][16][19]

In 1969, Shigeta toured the United States in the lead role of The King and I, with Melva Niles and Pam Cavan co-starring in the production.[20]


Shigeta in ABC Television publicity photo for It Takes a Thief, 1968
Shigeta in ABC Television publicity photo for It Takes a Thief, 1968

When movies began to open up for him, Shigeta took acting lessons from seasoned dialogue coach Leon Charles.[7]

Shigeta first came on screen in the U.S., in 1959 as Detective Joe Kojaku in The Crimson Kimono, a detective story that featured an interracial romantic triangle between Kojaku, his partner Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (played by Glenn Corbett), and Christine Downes (portrayed by Victoria Shaw). Shigeta's character was groundbreaking for the 1950s, an Asian American detective played by an Asian American actor with regular American speech patterns, rather than a non-Asian made up to pass as Asian who speaks in broken English.[21]

Paramount Pictures and James Clavell cast Shigeta in the 1960 release Walk Like a Dragon, as Cheng Lu, a young Chinese man in the American old west who resents that Chinese must be subservient to white people.[19] When filming began, Shigeta was still starring in Holiday in Japan in Las Vegas.[16] An arrangement was made to transport him after his last show to the Paramount studio by ambulance to make sure he arrived on time.[7] The technical advisor to Shigeta on the film was Benson Fong, who taught Shigeta how to mount a horse Chinese style.[16] Jack Lord has first billing in this movie, which pits Shigeta against Lord for the affections of Kim Sung, played by Nobu McCarthy.[22] Shigeta and McCarthy would work together again in the 1965 Perry Mason episode, "The Case of the Wrongful Writ," while Shigeta and Lord would work together in the 1968 Hawaii Five-O episode Deathwatch.

The 1961 romantic comedy Cry for Happy had Shigeta co-starring with Glenn Ford, Donald O'Connor and Miyoshi Umeki in a tale about Korean War era United States Navy photographers in Japan.[23]

In 1961, Shigeta was cast as Wang Ta, a role originated by Ed Kenney on Broadway,[24] in the Academy Award-nominated[25] movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song with Nancy Kwan and Miyoshi Umeki playing the love interests.[26]

He was cast as World War II Japanese diplomat Hidenari Terasaki opposite Carroll Baker as Gwen Terasaki in the 1961 biographical movie Bridge to the Sun.[27] A rarity for its era, the movie told the true story of a racially mixed marriage set against the background of the war between the United States and Japan.[28]

Shigeta guest starred in many television shows, beginning with Alcoa Premiere in 1961, as a Korean War era Chinese Communist who tortured star Lloyd Bridges.[29] He continued to act in television up through Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2005.

In 1965, Shigeta starred in Paradise, Hawaiian Style with Elvis Presley.

In 1965, Shigeta worked with Raymond Burr in the Perry Mason episode "The Case of the Wrongful Writ", cast as lawyer Ward Toyama who finds himself as the defendant.[30] Shigeta worked with Raymond Burr two more times, in the 1969 Ironside episode "Love My Enemy", and the 1971 episode "No Motive for Murder" of the same series.

From 1969 to 1972, Shigeta had recurring appearances on the TV hospital drama Medical Center, in which he alternately appeared as the Resident Doctor and Doctor Osaka, for seven episodes. He played the role of Chief Resident in the series 1969 2-hour pilot U.M.C.[31][32]

He also continued starring in films. In 1976, he portrayed the famous Japanese admiral Chūichi Nagumo in Midway. In 1988, he played the ill-fated corporate executive Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi in the action adventure film Die Hard. Cage II: The Arena of Death from 1994 pits star Lou Ferrigno against Shigeta's character of underworld crime boss Tim Yum Yum.[33] Shigeta lent his voice to Disney's 1998 animated film Mulan.

Awards and legacy

James Shigeta shared the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer with actors George Hamilton, Troy Donahue and Barry Coe.[34][35]

In 2005, Shigeta received a "Visionary Award" from the Asian-American theatre organization, East West Players, at their annual anniversary gala in Los Angeles.[36]

In 2006, Shigeta was among the actors, producers and directors interviewed in the documentary The Slanted Screen, directed by Jeff Adachi, about the representation of Asian and Asian American men in Hollywood.[37]


Shigeta died in his sleep on July 28, 2014, at age 85 in Beverly Hills.[38] He was interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.[39]



Year Title Role Director Notes
1959 The Crimson Kimono Detective Joe Kojaku Samuel Fuller Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer – Male
1960 Walk Like a Dragon Cheng Lu James Clavell
1961 Cry for Happy Suzuki George Marshall
Bridge to the Sun Hidenari Terasaki Étienne Périer
Flower Drum Song Wang Ta Henry Koster
1966 Paradise, Hawaiian Style Danny Kohana Mickey Moore
Death Walks in Laredo Lester Koto Enzo Peri
1968 Nobody's Perfect Toshi O'Hara Alan Rafkin
Manila, Open City Captain Murakami Eddie Romero
1973 Lost Horizon To Len Charles Jarrott
1975 The Yakuza Goro Tanaka Sydney Pollack
1976 Midway Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo Jack Smight
1988 Die Hard Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi John McTiernan
1989 Cage Tin Lum Yin Lang Elliott
1990 China Cry: A True Story Dr. Sung James F. Collier
1994 Cage II: The Arena of Death Tim Lum Yin Lang Elliott
1995 Midnight Man Mao Mak John Weidner
1996 Space Marines Ambassador Nakamura
1997 Drive Mr. Lau Steve Wang
1998 Mulan General Li Barry Cook
Tony Bancroft
2000 Brother Sugimoto Takeshi Kitano
2002 A Ribbon of Dreams Jimmy Chan Philip W. Chung
2009 The People I've Slept With Charles Yang Quentin Lee Final film role


Year Title Role Notes
1961 Alcoa Premiere Captain Episode: "The Fortress"
Playdate Major Ri Episode: "The Cell 5 Experience"
1962 Naked City James Kam Episode: "The Contract"
1963 Dr. Kildare Dr. Roy Shigera Episode: "One Clear Bright Thursday Morning"
1963–1964 The Outer Limits Major Jong / Captain Newa Episode: "Nightmare" / Episode: "The Inheritors (Pt 1)"
1964 Burke's Law Sidney Ying Episode: "Who Killed the Paper Dragon?"
The Lieutenant Captain Myang Lee Episode: "To Kill a Man"
A Carol for Another Christmas The Doctor Television film
1965 The Bing Crosby Show Joe Episode: "That's the Way the Suki Yakies"
Perry Mason Ward Toyama Episode: "The Case of the Wrongful Writ"
I Spy Tommy Episode: "Three Hours on a Sunday Night"
Ben Casey Dr. Harvey Lee / Father Michael Hsueh 3 episodes
1967 The Mystery of the Chinese Junk George Ti Ming Television film
1968 It Takes a Thief Fong Sing Episode: "When Good Friends Get Together"
Escape to Mindanao Lieutenant Takahashi Television film
Hawaii Five-O Joseph Matsukino Episode: "Deathwatch"
1969–1971 Ironside Toshio Watari / Il Pak Soong 2 episodes
1970 Mission: Impossible Shiki Episode: "Butterfly
1969–1972 Medical Center Dr. Osaka Recurring role; Seasons 1–3
1974 The Questor Tapes Dr. Chen Television film
Emergency! Mr. O'Brien Episode: "Foreign Trade"
1975 Matt Helm Tom McCauley Episode: "Pilot"
Kung Fu Master Kwan Li / Colonel Lin Pei 2 episodes
1976 Ellery Queen Stephen Yang Episode: "The Adventure of the Judas Tree"
S.W.A.T. Lieutenant Eddie Chew Episode: "The Chinese Connection"
The Killer Who Wouldn't Die David Lao Television film
The Streets of San Francisco Prosecutor 2 episodes
Once an Eagle Lin Tso-Han Miniseries
The Moneychangers "Wizard" Wong
1977 Little House on the Prairie Sam Wing Episode: "To Live with Fear, Part 2"
The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries Kapala Episode: "Wipe-Out"
1978 Police Woman Bernie Kim Episode: "The Human Rights of Tiki Kim"
The Rockford Files Clement Chin Episode: "Heartaches of a Fool"
Fantasy Island General Lin Sun Episode: "Spending Spree/The Hunted"
1979 Samurai Takeo Chisato Television film
1980 Enola Gay: The Men, the Mission, the Atomic Bomb Field Marshal Abehata
1982 The Greatest American Hero Colonel Shawn Liang Episode: "The Hand-Painted Thai"
Tomorrow's Child Donald Shibura Television film
The Renegades Jimmy Lee
Strike Force Leong Episode: "Chinatown"
1983 T. J. Hooker Chow Duc Khan Episode: "Chinatown"
Masquerade Makko Episode: "Girls for Sale"
1984 The Love Boat M. Yasamoto 2 episodes
Matt Houston Lin Ha Episode: "Blood Money"
1985 Airwolf Colonel Tranh Van Zung Episode: "The American Dream"
1986 The Family Martinez Judge Yamamoto Television film
1986 Magnum, P.I. Mr. Obotu Episode: "Paper War"
Dr. Richard Enoka Episode: "Forty Years from Sand Island"
1987 The Hitchhiker Nishi Episode: "Perfect Order"
1987–1988 Simon & Simon Musashi Sato / Chen / Daniel Yoshiro 3 episodes
1989 Mission: Impossible Ki Episode: "The Lions"
Dragnet Mr. Minn Episode: "The Payback"
A Peaceable Kingdom Dr. Okawa Episode: "Snake Bite"
Jake and the Fatman Koso Nakasone Episode: "The Way You Look Tonight"
1992 Murder, She Wrote Luc Lee / John Sukahara 2 episodes
1994 seaQuest DSV President Hoy Chi
Hart to Hart: Old Friends Never Die Detective Whoo Television film
Babylon 5 Taro Isogi Episode: "Spider in the Web"
1994 Renegade Mr. Ota / Hideo Maruyama Episodes: "Samurai" & "Black Wind"
1996 Cybill Mr. Matsuzaki Episode: "Cybill and Maryann Go to Japan"
1997 The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest Inspector Mantjur / Mr. Yamashiro / Japanese Prime Minister 2 episodes
1999 Beverly Hills, 90210 Ben Sosna Recurring role; Seasons 9–10
2004 Threat Matrix Kang Sok-Joo Episode: "PPX"
2005 Avatar: The Last Airbender Old Wanderer Episode: "The Spirit World-Winter Solstice, Part 1"


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