Miyoshi Umeki was a trailblazer in Hollywood who became the first Asian actor to bring home an Oscar—but almost 20 years later, she wrecked her trophy and then threw it away.
She Chased The American Dream
Though Miyoshi Umeki grew up in Hokkaido, Japan, she fostered hopes of chasing the American dream. Her love of Western music ignited her passion for singing, and she practiced constantly—her ambitions pushing her to move to New York in 1955. Despite the odds stacked against her, Umeki broke into show business almost instantly.
She Made History
Two years later, 28-year-old Umeki landed a huge role in Sayonara. Her co-star was none other than the hottest heartthrob of the 50s, Marlon Brando. Still, when the Academy Awards rolled around, it was Umeki who made history by bringing home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. It was a huge step forward for Asian actors everywhere—but sadly, it was not enough to free Umeki from a career spent filling stereotypical roles.
She Was Typecast
After WWII, Asian women were often portrayed on screen as demure, obedient, and self-effacing—and Umeki’s fate as an actress was no different. When her son asked her why she’d agreed to speak pidgin English, her response was very straightforward: “I didn’t like doing it, but when someone pays you to do a job, you do the job, and do your best.”
She Had Her Priorities Straight
In 1976, Umeki experienced a personal tragedy with the passing of her husband—and it wasn’t long after that that she scratched away her name on her Oscar trophy, only to discard it. According to her son, this was Umeki’s way of showing him that the “material things” in life were not what she treasured most and “not who she was.”