From early on Hayakawa was groomed for a career as a naval officer. However at the age of 17, he took a schoolmate's dare to swim to the bottom of a lagoon (he grew up in a shellfish diving community) and ruptured his eardrum. He had been studying at the Naval Academy in Etajima but his record of perfect health was now shattered and he failed the navy's rigorous physical. His formerly proud father was now ashamed and embarrassed of his son. Their relationship became strained.
The strained relationship drove the young Hayakawa to attempt seppuku (ritual suicide). One quiet night after dinner Hayakawa entered a garden shed on his parents' property, locked his favorite dog outside and spread a white sheet on the ground. To uphold his family's samurai tradition, Hayakawa stabbed himself in the abdomen more than 30 times. The dog's barking alerted Hayakawa's family and his father smashed through the shed door with an axe in time to save his son.
After he recovered from the suicide attempt Hayakawa enrolled in the University of Chicago to study political economics. His family had decided that if he could not be a naval officer, he would become a banker. He resided continuously in the United States from 1911 until 1923 and again from 1925 until 1931.
One of the productions Hayakawa performed in was called The Typhoon. The well known film producer Thomas Ince saw the production and offered to turn it into a silent movie using the original cast. Anxious to return to his studies at the University of Chicago, Hayakawa decided to try and dissuade Ince by requesting the absurdly high fee of $500 a week. Ince agreed to pay it.
The Typhoon was filmed in 1914, and was an instant hit. Hayakawa made two more films with Ince, The Wrath of the Gods co starring his new wife, Issei actress Tsuru Aoki, and The Sacrifice. With his rising stardom Hayakawa soon was offered a contract by Jesse L. Lasky. He signed on making him part of Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount Pictures).
After years of extensive typecasting at Famous Players, Hayakawa decided to form his own production company. He borrowed $1 million from a former classmate at the University of Chicago and formed Haworth Pictures Corporation in 1918. Over the next three years he pumped out 23 films and netted $2 million a year. Hayakawa controlled the content. He produced, starred in, directed, and contributed to the design, writing, and editing of the films. His films influenced the way the American public viewed Asians.
In 1918 Hayakawa personally chose the highly popular American serial actress Marin Sais to appear opposite him in a series of films, the first being the 1918 racial drama The City of Dim Faces followed by His Birthright, which also starred his wife. Hayakawa's collaboration with Sais ended with the 1919 film Bonds of Honor. He also appeared opposite Jane Novak in The Temple of Dusk, a Mutual Film Corporation production.
In 1919 Hayakawa made what is generally considered one of his best films, The Dragon Painter. During this period Hayakawa was at his Hollywood peak. He was one of the highest paid stars of the era, making $2 million a year through his production company throughout the 1920s. His fame rivaled that of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and William S. Hart, and in many ways, he was a precursor to Rudolph Valentino.
Hayakawa's wealth and extravagance was legendary. He drove a gold plated Pierce-Arrow. He entertained lavishly in his 'Castle' which was known as the scene of some of Hollywood's wildest parties. Shortly before Prohibition took effect in 1920, he bought a carload of booze. Hayakawa once claimed that he owed his social success to his liquor supply. During this time, in the course of one night he gambled away $1 million in Monte Carlo, shrugging off the loss while another Japanese gambler who lost a fortune committed suicide.
In 1925 he wrote a novel, The Bandit Prince, and turned it into a short play. In 1930 he performed in a one-act play written especially for him, Samurai, for King George V of Great Britain and Queen Mary. He also became very popular in France thanks to the prevailing French fascination with anything Asian. In 1930 Hayakawa returned to Japan and produced a Japanese-language stage version of The Three Musketeers.
In 1937 Hayakawa went to France to act in Yoshiwara and found himself trapped by the German occupation. He was separated from his family during this time.
Hayakawa made few movies during these years, but supported himself by selling watercolors. He joined the French Resistance and helped Allied flyers during the war. In 1949, Humphrey Bogart's production company tracked Hayakawa down and offered him a role in Tokyo Joe. Before issuing a work permit, the American Consulate investigated Hayakawa's activities during the war. They found that he had in no way contributed to the German war effort. Hayakawa followed Tokyo Joe with Three Came Home, in which he played a real-life POW camp commander Lieutenant-Colonel Suga, before returning to France.
His post-war screen persona became fixed as the honorable villain, perhaps best exemplified in his role as Colonel Saito in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Picture. Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Red Buttons. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe for the role. He called this role the highlight of his career.
After that film Hayakawa in essence retired from acting. Throughout the rest of his life he performed on a handful of television shows and a few movies. His final film appearance was in The Daydreamer in 1966.
In 1961 he became a Zen master as well as a private acting coach. He wrote an autobiography, Zen Showed me the Way.
Throughout his career, the United States dealt with yellow peril which affected Americans perceptions of Asians. This left Hayakawa to constantly be typecast as a villain or forbidden lover and unable to play parts that would be given to fellow white actors such as Douglas Fairbanks.
Hayakawa can be seen as a precursor to Rudolph Valentino. Both were foreign born, both were typecast as exotic or forbidden lovers, and both were wildly popular during their time. Hayakawa also inadvertently helped Rudolph Valentino's rise to stardom. His contract with Famous Players expired in May 1918, but the studio still asked him to star in The Sheik. Hayakawa turned down the picture in favor of starting his own company, most likely not happy with another 'forbidden villain lover' role. With influence from June Mathis, the role went to the barely known Valentino, which turned him into an icon.
Some Japanese felt his American success represented turning his back on his nation. His later films were also not popular, because he was now ironically seen as 'too Americanized' during a time of 'Nationalism'.
This typecasting was the reason Hayakawa set up his own production company in 1918 around the height of his US fame. At that time he stated he wanted to be shown "as he really is and not as fiction paints him." As for his prior roles, he said, "They are false and give people a wrong idea of us [Asians]."
Hayakawa desperately sought to show a more balanced and fair portrait of Asians. In 1949 he stated, “My one ambition is to play a hero.” In his autobiography he observed, “All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys of most men.”
In Europe the couple adopted western children and gave them Japanese names, a boy, called Yukio, and two girls, Yoshiko, an actress; and Fujiko, a dancer.
While filming The Jaguar's Claws, in the Mojave Desert, Hayakawa played a Mexican bandit, and the film required 500 cowboys as extras. On the first night of filming, the extras drank all night and well into the next day. No work was being done, so Hayakawa challenged the group to a fight. Two men stepped forward. Hayakawa said of the incident, "The first one struck out at me. I seized his arm and sent him flying on his face along the rough ground. The second attempted to grapple and I was forced to flip him over my head and let him fall on his neck. The fall knocked him unconscious." Hayakawa then disarmed yet another cowboy. The extras returned to work, amused by the way the small man manhandled the big bruising cowboys.
In 1989 a musical based on his life, Sessue, played in Tokyo.
In September 2007 the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective on Hayakawa's work titled: "Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met"