Ken Watanabe
Birth Date:
October 21, 1959
Birth Place:
Koide, Niigata, Japan
6' 0¾''
Famous for:
His role in 'The Last Samurai' (2003)
Koide High School, Niigata, Japan
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The Last Samurai


“The sushi knife is more dangerous than the samurai sword.” Ken Watanabe

Japanese Oscar nominated actor Ken Watanabe garnered critical acclaim for his turn as the titular character of samurai Lord Katsumoto in his first American film, the action/drama “The Last Samurai” (2003), opposite Tom Cruise. He subsequently received more prominent film roles, notably The Chairman in “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005), the villainous Ra's al Ghul in “Batman Begins” (2005) and General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006).

The 6' 0¾'' tall actor, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in the late 1980s and is now fully recovered, was featured in People Magazine's “50 Most Beautiful People” edition in 2004. He has been married twice and has two grown children.

"Maybe I'm more famous with Japanese people over 40. But other than that, Tom is more famous. People older than 40 can't actually recognize who is Tom Cruise and who is Tom Hanks." Ken Watanabe

Leukemia Survivor

Childhood and Family:

In Koide, Niigata, Japan, Kensaku Watanabe was born on October 21, 1959, to a general education teacher mother and a calligraphy teacher father. He attended Koide High School, in Niigata, Japan, in 1978 and later studied acting at England's National Theatre Company.

Watanabe has been married twice. He divorced his first wife, Yumiko Watanabe, in April 2005 and married his present wife, Kaho Minami (actress; born on January 20, 1964), on December 3, 2005. Watanabe has two grown children from his first marriage, son Shin Shinitiro (born August 1, 1984) and daughter Anne Watanabe (model; born in 1986)

During his free time, Watanabe enjoys playing golf, tennis, basketball, baseball, horseback riding, skiing, driving trucks, playing trumpet and cooking. He is an avid fan of the Hanshin Tigers (Japanese professional baseball team) and Kobe Steel rugby team.

In 1989, Watanabe was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He spent the next few years in and out of the hospital and fell gravely ill once in 1994. Watanabe is now fully recovered.

Letters from Iwo Jima


Growing up pursuing his musical interest (the trumpet), Ken Watanabe eventually turned to acting and began his acting career after graduating from high school in 1978. In 1982, he got his big break when he joined the Tokyo based theater troupe Engeki-Syudan En, with whom he attracted critical and popular notice as the hero in his stage debut, director Yukio Ninagawa's play “Shimodani Mannencho Monogatari.” The 23-year-old was recommended by a director of England's National Theatre Company and began attending the company the next year.

“Michinaru Hanran” (aka “Unknown Rebellion,” 1982) was Watanabe's first TV appearance. He followed it up with the television drama “Mibu no koiuta,” in which he starred as a Samurai warrior for the first time.

In 1984, Watanabe made a crossover to the big screen by playing a bit part in director Masahiro Shinoda's film adaptation of Yû Aku's novel, the post WWII drama “Setouchi shonen yakyu dan” (aka “MacArthur's Children”), which became that year's popular and influential Japanese motion picture. Afterward, he starred in a TV series based on Toyoko Yamazaki's book, "Sanga moyu" (1984; aka “The Burning Mountain River”) and the films “Kekkon annai Mystery” (1985), based on the novel by Jirô Akagawa, “Tampopo” (1985; aka “Dandelion”), a comedy by writer-director Juzo Itami and “Umi to dokuyaku” (1986; aka “The Sea and Poison”), a drama based on Shusaku Endo's novel that won the Watanabe the Ecran d’Or Best New Actor Award from the Japan Film and Television Producers Society .

The highly popular NHK TV samurai drama series based on Yamaoka Souhachi's novel, “Dokuganryu Masamune” (aka “One-Eyed Dragon, Masamune”; 1987), in which Watanabe took the lead role, helped catapult his name toward stardom. This led him to starring roles in the next years' films “Karate Warrior” (1988) and “Ten to chi to” (aka “Heaven and Earth”; 1989). Meanwhile, he also performed on stage in a production of “Pizarro” (1985) and “Hamlet” (1988).

After doing a string of treatments and eventually recovering from leukemia, Watanabe went back to the screen as the narrator of the dramatic mini series "Takeda Shingen" (1990). He played the lead role of Ryouma Sakamoto, a liberal intellectual who tried to carry out a revolution without blood, in Mitsuyuki Yakushiji's film version of Kouhei Tsuka's novel, “Bakumatsu jyunjyoden” (1991) and starred in the made-for-television movie “Kimitachi ga ite boku ga iru” (1992). He spent the rest of the 1990s appearing in writer-director Koki Mitani's comedy movie about radio, “Rajio no jikan” (1997; aka “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald”), as Raita Onuki the truck driver, and Kichitaro Negishi's crime/drama inspired by Tooru Shirakawa's novel, “Kizuna” (1998), in which he co-starred with Kouji Yakusho, playing Detective Sako Akio.

The new millennium saw Watanabe in the TV series "Ikebukuro West Gate Park," Jun Ichikawa's film “Zawa-zawa Shimokita-sawa” and providing his voice in Katsuyuki Motohiro's animated action/comedy movie “Supêsutoraberâzu.” He also starred in the dramatic TV series "Hojo Tokimune" (2001) and in the films “Oboreru sakana” (2001), a sci-fi thriller by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, and “Sennen no koi - Hikaru Genji monogatari” (2001), Tonko Horikawa's drama/fantasy based on the ancient Japanese Tale of Genji in which he played two Heian-period noblemen, Michinaga Fujiwara and the husband of Lady Murasaki.

On stage, Watanabe made his return after 13 years in a production of “Hamlet no gakuya -anten” (2000), “Eien part1-kanojo to kare” (2000) and “Eien part2-kanojo to kare” (2001). Afterward, he continued his film work and starred in writer-director Kiyoshi Sasabe's drama “Hi wa mata noboru” (2002) and Kazuki Omori's action/comedy “T.R.Y.” (2003), in which he played the villainous role of a Japanese military officer named Masanobu Azuma trying to sell weapons to an underground anti-government parties in China.

Watanabe broke into Hollywood in 2003 when he co-starred with Tom Cruise and Hiroyuki Sanada in Edward Zwick's action/drama film, “The Last Samurai.” Delivering a brilliant performance as the titular character of the story, samurai Lord Katsumoto, a warrior-poet who was once Emperor Meiji's (played by Shichinosuke Nakamura) most trusted teacher, Watanabe earned Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

Following his Hollywood breakout performance, Watanabe returned to his homeland to star in the mystery TV series based on Seicho Matsumoto's novel, "Suna no utsuwa" (2004), and in Isao Yukisada's period drama film set in 1868, “Kita no zeronen” (2005). The successful actor then made his second American film, “Batman Begins” (2005), Christopher Nolan's superhero film based on the fictional DC Comics character. He followed it up with another high profile film, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005), Rob Marshall's Academy Award and Grammy Award winning movie adaptation of the 1997 novel with the same name by Arthur Golden in which he portrayed the Chairman, the wealthy and benevolent man who would change Chiyo/Sayuri's (played by Zhang Ziyi) life.

After executive producing and starring as a middle-aged successful businessman threatened by early Alzheimers in Yukihiko Tsutsumi's film adaptation of Hiroshi Ogiwara's novel, “Ashita no kioku” (2006; aka “Memories of Tomorrow”), Watanabe was picked to play the lead role of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Clint Eastwood's Academy Award and Golden Globe winning WWII drama film “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006).

Commenting on the film about the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of Japanese soldiers, Watanabe said, “Clint (Eastwood) did not want to show the hero in the war. It's a true history in Japan. It's a very deep and sad history. So the timing may be good for the movie, but we did not want the timing to be seen as relating to the Iraq war. We have to look at the truth.”

Meanwhile, Watanabe also appeared in an American Express credit card print ad and in Yakult commercials. More recently, in 2007, he starred in the made-for-television drama “Hoshi hitotsu no yoru.”

“I'm not a big star in Japan. I'm an actor. I have a very normal life. Four days a week I cook at home. A star doesn't do that.” Ken Watanabe


  • Award of the Japanese Academy: Best Actor, “Ashita no kioku,” 2007

  • Blue Ribbon: Best Actor, “Ashita no kioku,” 2007

  • Kinema Junpo: Best Actor, “Ashita no kioku,” 2007

  • Nikkan Sports Film: Best Actor, “Ashita no kioku,” 2006

  • Hochi Film: Best Actor, “Ashita no kioku,” 2006

  • Blue Ribbon: Special Award, “The Last Samurai,” 2004

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