Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Tsuru Aoki, Lotus Flower of the Cinema

Tsuru Aoki
Tsuru Aoki, in Sunset magazine.

Note: This is an encore post from 2017.

Though long in the shadow of her more well known husband, Tsuru Aoki achieved just as great a fame as Sessue Hayakawa, with a life story as fascinating as any novel. Born in Japan though raised in the United States, the beautiful Aoki functioned as a crossroads of the East and West, blending together the best attributes of both nations into a wonderful hybrid, though never fully embraced by either. Brought to this country as a child, she was never able to apply for American citizenship thanks to Anti-Asian laws and sentiments, and was often forced to depend on the kindness of others as she was shunted to and fro. Aoki’s life story also reveals America’s changing viewpoints and knee-jerk reactions about and to the Japanese, often during times of trouble in which the “other” became the villain to make up for other groups’ sins.

The vast majority of books and articles mentioning Aoki then and now blend together fact and fiction into her biography, not digging for the true facts. She was not born with Aoki as her name. In fact, she was probably born December 24, 1891 or 1892 in Hakata, the daughter of a poor Japanese fisherman Kahara Isekichi and his wife, Taka Kawakami, which she discovered when her father sent her a letter years after she became a star.

Hollywood at Play, by Donovan Brandt, Mary Mallory and Stephen X. Sylvester is now on sale.


Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa, in Sunset magazine.


Aoki seems to have arrived in the United States in 1899 with her uncle, renowned Japanese actor Otijiro (Otto) Kawakami, the “Henry Irving of Japan,” and her aunt Sadayakko Kawakami, the “Sarah Bernhardt of Japan.” Stories note that her father died in the Russo-Japanese War and she was given to her aunt to raise after her mother died. The Kawakamis organized the Imperial Theatre of Japan, where they introduced William Shakespeare plays to the country and became known world wide. In 1899 they sailed for the United States to act in this country on their way to Europe and the World Exposition in Paris.

Some accounts claim Aoki appeared as a member of their company in Japan and in Seattle and San Francisco, where she was popular with audiences. Children’s Protective Services in San Francisco looked unkindly on eight-year-old children working in theatre, rather than attending school. The Kawakamis soon turned to a kindly man, possibly her uncle but probably not, renowned artist Hyosai Aoki. He agreed to raise the girl, changing her last name to Aoki and moving with her to Pasadena, California. The San Francisco Dramatic Review on September 9, 1899 called her a “juvenile member of the company” when she left San Francisco with Aoki to travel to Pasadena.

After she became a star, journalist Louise Scher backed up this story, writing an article for entitled “A Flower of Japan,” noting she met Aoki in Colorado Springs on vacation around 1900-1901 when Aoki was 8, two years after she arrived in the United States with her aunt and uncle. The ten-year-old Scher was drawn to the confident and playful Aoki, who commented on the book she was reading. Scher described how Aoki “adopted” her and changed her last name from Kawakami to Aoki. The two girls loved meeting up in Colorado Springs every year to run around and play and catch up.

Aoki does appear to have loved the girl, introducing her to singing, dancing, theatre, and painting and signing her up for education at a convent school. He included her in events with celebrities like Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan and others when he threw an elaborate Cherry Blossom Dinner in Pasadena for 75 guests which cost $500, per the March 9, 1903 Los Angeles Herald, featuring a real cherry blossom tree in the middle of the room with 6000 blossoms below and surrounded by a white picket fence on which hung pink Japanese lanterns. The paper reported that his cute and talkative ward sat at the table with the adults.

Over the next several years the city directory lists them living at 391 Kensington Place in Pasadena in 1905, 5 Cabrillo Place in 1907, and in 1910 at 227 W. Walnut Street while the artist continued drawing and paining. During these years she also attended St. Margaret’s Hall in San Mateo, California, where she was a classmate to future screenwriter Frances Marion, per Cari Beauchamp’s book, “Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.”

The United States adored everything Japanese in the early late 1800s and early 1900s. After Commodore Matthew Perry and his ships entered Tokyo harbor in 1853, fascination and a craze for the arts and culture of Japan skyrocketed. Textiles, ceramics, prints, philosophy, and even gardens soon became popular, with the term “Japonism” created to describe the country’s influence. Operas, plays, and books centered around Japanese themes and characters, with many Americans viewing the culture as more refined, pure, and moral because of its focus on honor and family.

Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki

Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki in a scene from “Alien Souls.”


When the artist Aoki died in 1912, young Aoki acted a short time with the Scoveli Juvenile Stock company and tracked down Louise Scher, who her father had asked to act as foster mother in case of his death. Aoki moved in with Scher and her family while figuring out her next move. By 1913 Tsuru was acting and adapting plays for a Japanese company at Eagan Dramatic School in Los Angeles, where she soon met a fellow pupil and performer Sessue Hayakawa who was quickly attracted to the beautiful and ambitious girl.

In a strange bit of luck, comedian Fred Mace discovered the warm Aoki and signed her to a contact with his company. The July 12, 1913 Motography announced the signing of Tsueu Aoki by Mace and the Majestic Film Company. She co-starred with him in “Mimosa’s Sweetheart,” a prim young Japanese woman who Mace is attempting to woo. Her acting impressed the cast, as they predicted great things for her in the June 4, 1913 issue of Moving Picture World, and reviews called her “exceptionally clever.” The bright and industrious young woman stated she hoped to form her own company and make artistic films in Japan to show to United States audiences.

Aoki soon appeared in “The Oath of Tsura San,” where she transformed from geisha girl into action hero. From this point forward, Aoki found herself almost typecast as obedient, self-sacrificing Japanese maidens full of honor and value. Her next film, “O Mimi San,” saw her essay a very Madame Butterfly-like character opposite a former schoolmate from the Eagan Dramatic School, Sessue Hayakawa. The two made a formidable team, with excellent chemistry and timing. Ince had signed her and her Japanese company, looking for authenticity and believability in his films and trusted her instincts regarding the intense Hayakawa.

Though he believed in authenticity onscreen, Ince had no problem with crafting elaborate false biographies a la Theda Bara to help promote films. Before the feature “The Wrath of the Gods,” Ince had released a false biography of Aoki claiming that she was a native of the island of Sakura, almost destroyed by volcano on January 13, 1914, with most of her relatives killed in the eruption. The sheet stated that Ince had convinced her to star in the film to reveal the Japanese people’s sufferings to the world, per Brian Taves in his biography of Thomas Ince. Aoki gave a restrained, thoughtful performance, helping to somewhat rein in Hayakawa’s overacting.

Over the next several years, Aoki would star in such films as “Love’s Sacrifice,” “A Tragedy of the Orient,” “Alien Souls,” and “The Curse of Caste,” as a honorable Japanese young woman often sacrificing herself in place of her great love. She and Hayakawa, whom she married on May 1, 1914 after falling in love during the making of “The Typhoon,” also played Native Americans in “The Last of the Line” and “The Death Mask.” While Hayakawa soon starred in “The Cheat” for Cecil B. DeMille and gained superstardom, Aoki remained content taking on challenging roles and remaining below the radar. When Hayakawa’s career took off at Paramount, Aoki subsumed her own ambitions to support him in his features there and later at his own company, Haworth Pictures. Whatever her film, Aoki garnered excellent reviews, noted for her believability and sensitivity, whether playing traditional Asian roles or those of assimilation and acceptance.

In the 1915 film “The Beckoning Flame,” Aoki played an Eastern Indian woman who prepares to die on her debauched husband’s funeral pyre when she is rescued by an Englishman with whom she falls in love. Pretending to be a male servant, the two live together until she hears that an English sweetheart has agreed to accept him. This time, she commits the ultimate sacrifice, suicide, to set him free.

Critics praised her for her acting, with the December 25, 1915 Motion Picture News stating, “Miss Aoki, besides possessing a face which seems to meet perfectly the screen’s exacting requirements, understands restraint so well that her impersonation of the ill-fated wife cases to be acting at all, and is transformed in the spectator’s mind, to life itself.” Moving Picture World saying, “To see her is to love her,” one noted she “never seemed to strike a wrong note,” and another described her “delicate and tender sensibility.” The Los Angeles Herald called her “the Nipponese Bernhardt.” The El Paso Herald on January 24, 1916 wrote, “It is dangerous to make comparisons, but the work of this little artist in this beautiful picture in point of style bears a striking resemblance to Mary Pickford’s. Both are appealing in their simplicity and emotion rather than resorting to exaggerated methods.”

Many noted Aoki’s focus, discipline, sincerity, charm, and intelligence. While she was happy to gain such praise, Aoki always worried that people wouldn’t like her, perhaps because of never feeling quite accepted because of her background. In many ways, her self-effacing attitude was an attempt to blend in and be at one with others.

Hayakawa and Aoki lived as any young couple in America would, wearing typical dress and living in a simple bungalow with a dog while enjoying pleasures like reading, sports, and taking drives. Aoki stated to Picture Play magazine that she loved to read Shakespeare, Strindberg, and Ovid, “Old friends that no human beings can really supersede; soul mates, as it were.”

As Hayakawa grew more successful, they purchased Argyle Castle and ever more elaborate sports cars, while throwing some of Hollywood’s most entertaining and popular parties. The couple took part in bond drives and war rallies just like other Hollywood stars, with Aoki also appearing at Red Cross events, fund drives, pageants, and at women’s events at places like the Hollywood Studio Club, while taking dance lessons from Ruth St. Denis, piano lessons from Godorowsky, singing lessons, horseback riding, and playing golf.


Aoki and Hayakawa in the Ogden (Utah) Standard, July 22, 1916.

Publicity stories on the other hand noted the blending of the two cultures, pointing out how their home contained both Japanese and English decoration, and that Aoki sometimes wore her colorful kimonos off-camera as well. The press always subtly noted their otherness, pointing out that Aoki was the most American of the two with her flawless American accent and knowing American ways. A story in the 1920 Picture Play magazine stated, “You would never be at all convinced that Tsuru Aoki were Japanese if your acquaintance was restricted to over-the phone conversations.”

Hayakawa and Aoki continued working well together, as Motion Picture News stated in their review of the 1919 film “A Heart in Pawn.” “One remarkable thing about the acting of Mr. and Mrs. Hayakawa is the absence of all gestures, and yet, in that motionless stirring of theirs, I could read whole books.”

The film revolved around a Japanese man living in San Francisco anxious to see his picture bride coming from Japan, with authentic settings at such places as the Golden Gate Park Tea Garden. The April 22, 1919 Los Angeles Herald reported an incident during filming that spoke about the rise of anti-Japanese feeling in the state. For authenticity, Aoki sailed out to join a boat of picture brides coming in to the bay, embarking with them, though the company had informed customs and immigration before filming. Immigration officials saw her name and questioned her about the marriage they assumed would take place on the dock. Humiliated, the couple was forced to explain that they had been married for five years, and that Aoki was merely playing a character.

Since the 1880s, an Anti-Exclusion Act had existed in the United States for Chinese, prohibiting immigration of all Chinese, the first act in the country to prohibit immigration by a certain ethnic group. In periods of strong economic growth, cheap immigrant labor was tolerated, but when times grew more tough, racism raised its head and those suffering blamed their troubles on the Chinese, leading to many discriminatory laws against the group. As Japanese farmers grew more successful in the early 1900s, many white Americans began taking out frustrations on Japanese Americans as well, creating laws making it more difficult for they and their families to immigrate, live, become citizens, or even own property, just like with the Chinese. Microaggressions and self-righteous superiority became the order of the day, and groups such as the California Oriental Exclusion league, Los Angeles Anti-Asiastic Society, and the Japanese Exclusion League were founded. Aoki and Hayakawa formed a club to try and foster a better understanding between Americans and resident Japanese.

During 1919 Aoki also received a huge shock when a letter from a man purporting to be her true father arrived. The Los Angeles Times reported that she had received a letter from Isekechi Kahara claiming to be her father, describing how he had married and then divorced her mother, abandoning the family. He described how Saddayakko had taken her to Kyoto to live. Tsuru believed him but stated that she felt Aoki was really her father for how he loved her and raised her. With strength and honesty she described how Saddayakko had always been unkind to her and called her ugly, while Aoki praised her, was gentle, and kind. A few weeks later Louise Scher spoke to the paper and relayed her story with Aoki to them, revealing Aoki’s courage and fortitude.

Later that year, Aoki signed a three picture deal with Universal to once again star in films, noting she yearned to play comedy again because she was tired of drama and always being killed off in films. While she earned great reviews from critics, Aoki saw racist letters about her and her ethnicity in places like Exhibitors Herald. P. G. Estes of Brookings, South Dakota wrote that her film “A Tokio Siren” featured good acting, “but our people don’t like Jap stars.” J. B. Stine of Clinton, Indiana wrote, “…Might go fine in Japanese houses, but my house and patronage is in the good old U. S. A.” He also wrote “Nix on Japs. American players are good enough for me.” After her last film, Aoki announced her retirement, perhaps in grief over the change in American attitudes. She did sign a contract in 1921 with a Japanese company to adapt Shakespeare and Sheridan for the Japanese stage, working on scripts.


Tsuru Aoki, from the book “Enter a Samurai.”

She also struggled in her marriage with Hayakawa. While he loved her, stating in his later book, “Zen Showed Me the Way” that “Her character is always as I have found it to be, sincere and tender,” he also saw his role as master of the house and in charge. Perhaps it was he who forced her to abandon starring roles on her own and support him. The November 26, 1921 reported him saying that she now preferred to stay at home and do housework and “other things that befit a woman’s life.” At the same time he also remarked, “I wish this and she seems glad to comply.” She became known as Mrs. Hayakawa.

Hayakawa at times lived his own life, going off on gambling trips and fooling around, though Aoki followed him when he toured the country giving lectures and acted in New York. On their 1921 trip President Harding even received them at the White House even as the American public grew more anti-immigrant and disapproving of other ethnic groups every day. They traveled together to Japan in the early 1920s and France and England in the mid-1920s to appear in films. They returned to the United States around 1930 and Hayakawa attempted to resurrect his American career, but his strong accent and the changing industry prevented his rise.

In October 1931, they faced scandal when actress Ruth Noble sued them, claiming the son they had adopted from her, Yukio, was in actuality hers and Hayakawa’s and born in New York January 31, 1929. Noble stated that she had acted on vaudeville with Hayakawa in the playlet “The Beggar Prince,” where they engaged in an affair. She sued for custody and claimed a contract had been signed to give her $4,500 for the child and payments of $150 a month. When she attempted to follow Aoki to Japan, Hayakawa claimed that she had cost him $20,000 since last October, and $7,000 in cash before leaving Los Angeles.

Aoki once again demonstrated great courage, speaking up in the Los Angeles Times on December 4, 1931, describing how she was in the background for four years regarding this and afraid to speak in order not to hurt Hayakawa or the child, whom she had grown to love as her own. She learned of the situation when he came to her and explained the story. She admitted he had his faults and was temperamental but she loved him. Aoki believed every woman would understand her story. She felt that only one true love came along in life, and that was Hayakawa to her. Aoki had hired Noble for the act and been kind to her, so she was willing to walk away and let him marry Noble to give the child a name, but Noble made scenes, screamed and was argumentative, and Hayakawa realized how much he loved Aoki. They decided to adopt the child and raise him with love. Aoki described how Noble brought on all the problems and how they felt sorry for her.

Aoki called Hayakawa a gentleman and tried to do the right thing, especially after all that “he has gone through merely because he is an oriental.” She did not believe in Kipling’s saying that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Aoki stated that it wasn’t true and that it was possible for the races to mix, which many couples were proving it to be true. Her long statement to the paper revealed her deep character, thoughtfulness, and intelligence, and a true Zen way of living. Few people in that day and age would be honest about infidelity and illegitimacy, but less racism.

The couple returned to Japan, where Aoki became an interpreter for Asahi newspapers in the late 1930s to support their three children when Hayakawa went to Europe to act. Daughter Yoshiko was born in Tokyo in 1936 and Fujiko in 1938 before Hayakawa left, and he remained stranded in Paris for 12 years because of war. He returned to the family in 1950, and made appearances in films like “A Bridge Over the River Kwai,” for which he won an Academy Award nomination. The couple both starred in “Hell to Eternity” in 1960 when the film company could not find a suitable Nisei for the role. Filmmakers claimed in advertising that she was introduced to the screen, ignoring her long, successful career while playing up Hayakawa’s.

While always in her husband’s shadow, and dependent on the largess of others for survival throughout much of her life, Aoki achieved great success in film for her sensitive and expressive portrayals of Asian women attempting to fit in and find their place, many as they attempted to bring East and West together. Though mainly forgotten today, Aoki is a true hero for bridging racial problems and trying to bring people together. She lived a life of peace and contentment for remaining true to her values and as a role model for all.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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