Ken Watanabe

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Ken Watanabe
Ken Watanabe 2007 (cropped).jpg
Watanabe at the New York premiere of Memories of Tomorrow in 2007
Born (1959-10-21) October 21, 1959 (age 63)
Years active1979–present
  • Yumiko Watanabe
    (m. 1983; div. 2005)
  • (m. 2005; div. 2018)
Children2, including Anne

Ken Watanabe (渡辺 謙, Watanabe Ken, born October 21, 1959) is a Japanese actor. To English-speaking audiences, he is known for playing tragic hero characters, such as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Letters from Iwo Jima and Lord Katsumoto Moritsugu in The Last Samurai, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Among other awards, he has won the Japan Academy Film Prize for Best Actor twice, in 2007 for Memories of Tomorrow and in 2010 for Shizumanu Taiyō. He is also known for his roles in Christopher Nolan's films Batman Begins and Inception, as well as Memoirs of a Geisha, and Pokémon Detective Pikachu.

In 2014, he starred in the reboot Godzilla as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, a role he reprised in the sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. He lent his voice to the fourth and fifth installments of the Transformers franchise respectively, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Transformers: The Last Knight, as Decepticon-turned-Autobot Drift. In 2022, he starred in the HBO Max crime drama series Tokyo Vice.

He made his Broadway debut in April 2015 in Lincoln Center Theater's revival production of The King and I in the title role. In 2015, Watanabe received his first Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical at the 69th Tony Awards for his role as The King. He is the first Japanese actor to be nominated in this category.[1] Watanabe reprised his role at the London Palladium in June 2018.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

Watanabe was born on October 21, 1959 in the mountain village of Koide in Niigata Prefecture, Japan. His mother was a school teacher and his father taught calligraphy.[4] Due to a number of relocations for his parents' work, he spent his childhood in the villages of Irihirose and Sumon, both now part of the city of Uonuma, and in Takada, now part of the city of Jōetsu. He attended Niigata Prefectural Koide High School, where he was a member of the concert band club, playing trumpet, which he had played since childhood.

After graduation from high school, in 1978 he aimed to enter Musashino Academia Musicae, a conservatory in Tokyo. However, he had never received a formal musical education, and because his father became seriously ill when he was in junior high school and was unable to work, which meant that his family could no longer afford to pay for his music lessons.[5] Because of these problems, Watanabe was forced to give up his intention of entering the conservatory. He said of the decision: "I had to give up my musical aspirations. I realised I had no talent as a musician. But I still wanted to find a way to be creative, so I decided to try acting".[5]


Japanese roles[edit]

After graduating from high school in 1978, Watanabe moved to Tokyo to begin his acting career, by enrolling in the drama school run by the En theatre troupe.[5] While with the troupe, he was cast as the hero in the play Shimodani Mannencho Monogatari, directed by the acclaimed Yukio Ninagawa.[5] The role attracted critical and popular notice.

In 1982, he made his first TV appearance in Michinaru Hanran (Unknown Rebellion), and his first appearance on TV as a samurai in Mibu no koiuta. He made his feature-film debut in 1984 with MacArthur's Children.

Watanabe is mostly known in Japan for playing samurai, as in the 1987 Dokuganryu Masamune (One eyed dragon, Masamune) the 50-episode NHK taiga drama. He played the lead character, Matsudaira Kurō, in the television jidaigeki Gokenin Zankurō, which ran for several seasons. He has gone on to garner acclaim in such historical dramas as Oda Nobunaga, Chūshingura, and the movie Bakumatsu Junjo Den.

In 1989, while filming Haruki Kadokawa's Heaven and Earth, Watanabe was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. He returned to acting while simultaneously undergoing chemotherapy treatments, but in 1991 suffered a relapse.

As his health improved his career picked back up. He co-starred with Kōji Yakusho in the 1998 Kizuna, for which he was nominated for the Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In 2002, he quit the En (Engeki-Shudan En) theatre group where he had his start and joined the K Dash agency. The film Sennen no Koi (Thousand-year Love, based on The Tale of Genji) earned him another Japanese Academy Award nomination.

In 2006, he won Best Lead Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards for his role in Memories of Tomorrow (Ashita no Kioku), in which he played a patient with Alzheimer's disease.

International films[edit]

Watanabe leaving after a press conference in Berlin for Letters from Iwo Jima in February 2007

Watanabe was introduced to most Western audiences in the 2003 American film The Last Samurai, set in 19th Century Japan.[6][7] His performance as Lord Katsumoto earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.[8]

Watanabe appeared in the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha, playing Chairman Iwamura. That same year, he also played the decoy of Ra's al Ghul in Christopher Nolan's Batman film reboot, Batman Begins. In 2006, he starred in Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, playing Tadamichi Kuribayashi. He has voiced Ra's al Ghul in the Batman Begins video game. He has filmed advertisements for American Express, Yakult, Canon and NTT DoCoMo. In 2004, he was featured in People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People edition. In 2009, he appeared in The Vampire's Assistant. In 2010, he co-starred in Inception, where he stars as Saito, a mark-turned-benefactor businessman of the film's heist team.

In 2014, he starred in two Hollywood blockbusters Godzilla and Transformers: Age of Extinction.[9] In 2019, he starred in two other Hollywood blockbusters Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.


Watanabe appears in Tokyo Vice, a television series[10] based on the non-fiction book by Jake Adelstein and written for television by J.T. Rogers. The ten-part series was produced by HBO Max and is distributed by HBO Max and in Japan by Wowow.[11] Tokyo Vice stars Ansel Elgort as Adelstein, an American journalist who embeds himself into the Tokyo Vice police squad to expose corruption.[12][13] Ken is currently starring in the NHK World Japan's comedy You're a Genius!.

In April 2019, it was announced that Warner Bros. International Television Production and Japan's TV Asahi network were teaming up to remake The Fugitive (1993). Watanabe is set to star in the upcoming remake, taking place in present-day Tokyo just before the opening of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The broadcast date has yet to be announced.[14]

Personal life[edit]

In 1983, Watanabe married his first wife, Yumiko. In September 2005, following two years of arbitration, he and Yumiko were divorced. The couple had two children, a son, Dai Watanabe (born 1984), who is an actor, and his daughter Anne Watanabe (born 1986) who is an actress and fashion model. In August 2008, Dai had his first child, a son, making Ken a grandfather at the age of 48. A daughter was born to Dai in March 2010. In May 2016, Watanabe's daughter by his first marriage, Anne, gave birth to twin girls. In November 2017 she gave birth to a son, giving Watanabe five grandchildren altogether.[5]

He met his second wife, Kaho Minami, when they were both acting in a suspense drama for TV Tokyo. They married on 3 December 2005. The marriage was announced by their agencies on 7 December,[15] just after they had attended a New York City premiere of his film Sayuri together.[16]

Watanabe at the premiere of Inception in July 2010

Watanabe formally adopted Minami's son from her previous marriage to director Jinsei Tsuji, and for a time the three of them lived in Los Angeles. In order to increase the amount of time the family could spend together, considering Ken's work requiring him to travel so much, they later returned to Japan. Initially Minami and Ken did not hold a wedding ceremony, but in 2010 they announced that they had held a ceremony on August 1 in Los Angeles.[17]

On May 17, 2018, Kaho Minami's agency announced that Minami and Watanabe had divorced after he had admitted to having an extramarital affair.[18][19]


On March 13, 2011, he launched a YouTube page to raise awareness about the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster and invited celebrities to add their videos for triple tragedy in Japan.[20] In his video in English, he made a call to action to support the victims of triple disaster and to raise funds in the relief effort.[21] In conjunction admist the Fukushima crisis, he has also created his own website for the cause.[22]

Health issues[edit]

In 1989, Watanabe was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The cancer returned in 1994, but he later recovered.[23]

In 2006, Watanabe revealed in his autobiography Dare? - Who Am I? that prior to commencing work on The Last Samurai, it was discovered that he had contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion he received while undergoing treatment for his leukemia.[5] At a press conference held on May 23, 2006, he said he was in "good" condition but was still undergoing treatment.[24]

In 2016, while on a break from performing in a Broadway production of The King and I, Watanabe was diagnosed with stomach cancer.[5] He subsequently announced on February 9, 2016, that he would postpone scheduled performances in order to undergo the necessary treatment.[25] Due to the early diagnosis, surgery was successfully able to remove the cancer.[5]



Year Title Role Notes
1984 MacArthur's Children Tetsuo Nakai
1985 Kekkon Annai Mystery Funayama Tetsuya / Masakazu Sekine
Tampopo Gun
1986 The Sea and Poison Toda
1998 Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald Raita Onuki, Truck Driver
Kizuna Detective Sako Akio
2000 Space Travelers Sakamaki
2001 Genji: A Thousand-Year Love Fujiwara Michinaga / Fujiwara Nobutaka
2002 Dawn of a New Day: The Man Behind VHS Ōkubo
2003 The Last Samurai Katsumoto Moritsugu Hollywood debut
T.R.Y. Masanobu Azuma
2005 Memoirs of a Geisha Chairman Ken Iwamura
Batman Begins Ra's al Ghul's Decoy
Year One in the North Hideaki Komatsubara
2006 Memories of Tomorrow Masayuki Saeki
Letters from Iwo Jima General Tadamichi Kuribayashi
2009 The Unbroken Hajime Onchi
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant Mr. Hibernius Tall
2010 Shanghai Captain Tanaka
Inception Mr. Saito
2012 Hayabusa: The Long Voyage Home Professor Yamaguchi Junichiro
2013 Unforgiven Jubei Kamata
2014 Godzilla Dr. Ishiro Serizawa
Transformers: Age of Extinction Drift (voice)[26]
2015 Sea of Trees Takumi Nakamura
2016 Rage Yōhei Maki
2017 Transformers: The Last Knight Drift (voice)
2018 Isle of Dogs Head Surgeon (voice)
The Samurai of Tsushima The Emperor of Japan (voice)
Bel Canto Katsumi Hosokawa
2019 Detective Pikachu Lt. Hide Yoshida Also dubbed for himself in Japanese
Godzilla: King of the Monsters Dr. Ishiro Serizawa
2020 Fukushima 50 Masao Yoshida [27]
2022 Olivia Rodrigo: Driving Home 2 U Himself Documentary
2023 True Love TBA Post-production[28]
TBA Kensuke's Kingdom Kensuke Voice role; In production


Year Title Role Notes
1983 Taiyō ni Hoero! Yūji Shimizu Episode 574
1984 Sanga Moyu Takeshi Kusuda Taiga drama
1986 Hanekonma Genzō Onodera Asadora
1987 Dokuganryū Masamune Date Masamune Taiga drama
1989 Oda Nobunaga Oda Nobunaga TV movie
1990–1992 Baian the Assassin Baian Fujieda
1993–1994 Homura Tatsu Fujiwara no Tsunekiyo / Fujiwara no Yasuhira Taiga drama
1995–2002 Gokenin Zankurō Zankurō Matsudaira
2000 Ikebukuro West Gate Park Inspector Yokoyama
2001 Chūshingura 1/47 Cameo, TV movie
Hōjō Tokimune Hōjō Tokiyori Taiga drama
2004 Suna no Utsuwa Shūichirō Imanishi
2009–2011 Saka no Ue no Kumo Narrator[29] Taiga special drama
2018 Segodon Shimazu Nariakira Taiga drama
2019 An Artist of the Floating World Masuji Ono TV movie
2020 The Fugitive Kazuki Kakurai Mini-series
2022 Tokyo Vice Hiroto Katagiri Also executive producer

Video games[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
2005 Batman Begins Ra's al Ghul's decoy


  • Britannicus henso (1980)
  • Shitaya mannencho monogatari (1981)
  • Fuyu no raion (The Lion in Winter) (1981)
  • Pajaze (1981)
  • Platonof (1982)
  • Kafun netsu (1982)
  • Pizarro (1985)
  • Hamlet (1988)
  • Hamlet no gakuya -anten (2000)
  • Towa part1-kanojo (2000)
  • Towa part2-kanojo to kare (2001)
  • Dialogue with Horowitz (2013)
  • The King and I (2015)
  • The King and I (2016)
  • The King and I (2018)
  • The Royal Hunt of the Sun (2020)


Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Organization Award Work(s) Result
1987 11th Elan d'or Awards Newcomer Award Himself Won
1999 22nd Japan Academy Film Prize Best Supporting Actor Kizuna Nominated[31]
2002 25th Japan Academy Film Prize Best Supporting Actor Sennen no Koi Story of Genji Nominated[31]
2003 26th Japan Academy Film Prize Best Supporting Actor Hi Wa Mata Noboru Nominated[31]
Washington DC Area Film Critics Association Awards Best Supporting Actor The Last Samurai Nominated[31]
2004 Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated[31]
Saturn Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated[31]
Blue Ribbon Awards Special Award Won[31]
Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated[31]
Golden Globe Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated[31]
Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated[31]
Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated[31]
Satellite Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated[31]
Screen Actors Guild Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated[31]
Television Drama Academy Awards (Winter) Best Supporting Actor Suna no Utsuwa Won[32]
2006 31st Hochi Film Awards Best Actor Memories of Tomorrow Won[31]
Nikkan Sports Film Awards Best Actor Won[31]
2007 Blue Ribbon Awards Best Actor Won[33]
30th Japan Academy Film Prize Best Actor Won[34]
Fujimoto Prize Special Prize Won[35]
Kinema Junpo Awards Best Actor Won[36]
2009 34th Hochi Film Awards Best Actor Shizumanu Taiyo Won[37]
2010 33rd Japan Academy Film Prize Best Actor Won[38]
2014 37th Japan Academy Film Prize Best Actor Unforgiven Nominated
2015 Tony Awards Best Actor in a Musical The King and I Nominated
2016 Grammy Awards Best Musical Theater Album Nominated[39]
41st Hochi Film Awards Best Actor Rage Nominated
2019 Olivier Awards Best Actor in a Musical The King and I Nominated
2021 44th Japan Academy Film Prize Best Supporting Actor Fukushima 50 Won

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ken Watanabe Receives 2015 Tony Nomination for "The King and I"". April 29, 2015.
  2. ^ Longman, Will (November 17, 2017). "Details confirmed for The King and I at the London Palladium in 2018". Retrieved November 17, 2017.
  3. ^ "The King and I". Retrieved November 17, 2017.
  4. ^ Keck, William (February 24, 2004). "Japanese Cruise". USA Today. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Lee, Ann (May 19, 2022). "'Each little thing in my life is precious': Ken Watanabe on cancer, childhood and Hollywood cliches". The Guardian. Retrieved May 20, 2022.
  6. ^ Rebecca Murray. "The Last Samurai - Ken Watanabe and Shin Koyamada Interviews". Entertainment. Archived from the original on September 6, 2015. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  7. ^ Corkill, Edan (July 6, 2013). "From Hollywood to Hirohito". The Japan Times. The Japan Times, Ltd. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  8. ^ "Watanabe nominated for Academy Award". CNN. Archived from the original on February 14, 2012. Retrieved February 12, 2012.
  9. ^ Justin Kroll (May 8, 2014). "John Goodman, Ken Watanabe to Voice Autobots in 'Transformers: Age of Extinction'". Variety. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  10. ^ Will Thorne (September 12, 2019). "Ken Watanabe Joins Ansel Elgort in 'Tokyo Vice' at HBO Max". Variety.
  11. ^ "Japan's Wowow Boards Michael Mann's 'Tokyo Vice' as Co-Producer as Production Resumes This Week". November 23, 2020.
  12. ^ Joe Otterson (June 6, 2019). "Ansel Elgort to Star in Drama Series 'Tokyo Vice' at WarnerMedia Streaming Service". Variety.
  13. ^ Nellie Andreeva (June 6, 2019). "Ansel Elgort to Star in Drama Series 'Tokyo Vice' at WarnerMedia Streaming Service". Deadline. Penske Media Corporation.
  14. ^ Schilling, Mark (April 24, 2019). "Ken Watanabe to Star in Japan Edition of 'The Fugitive'". Variety. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
  15. ^ "Actors Watanabe, Minami tie knot". The Japan Times. The Japan Times, Ltd. December 8, 2005. Retrieved May 18, 2018.
  16. ^ "'Memoirs of a Geisha' New York City Premiere - Inside Arrivals". Getty Images. December 6, 2005. Retrieved May 18, 2018.
  17. ^ "Ken Watanabe to appear in Docomo ad with Darth Vader". Japan Today. September 2, 2010. Retrieved May 21, 2018.
  18. ^ "Ken Watanabe of 'Last Samurai' fame divorces his actress wife". The Asahi Shimbun. The Asahi Shimbun Company. May 19, 2018. Retrieved May 19, 2018.
  19. ^ "Ken Watanabe and Kaho Minami divorce after cheating scandal". Arama!. May 19, 2018. Retrieved May 19, 2018.
  20. ^ "kizuna311". YouTube. Retrieved April 12, 2012.
  21. ^ ""kizuna311" a message from Ken Watanabe". YouTube. Retrieved April 12, 2012.[dead YouTube link]
  22. ^ "Kizuna – Unity and Hope. Together we will prevail and overcome". Archived from the original on March 28, 2012. Retrieved April 12, 2012.
  23. ^ Freydkin, Donna. "Watanabe opens 'a box of painful memories'". USA Today. Retrieved February 10, 2016.
  24. ^ "May - 2006 - Japan Zone". Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  25. ^ Mark Kennedy (February 9, 2016). "Tony-nominated actor Ken Watanabe battling stomach cancer". Associated Press. Archived from the original on November 12, 2016.
  26. ^ Bay, Michael (May 8, 2014). "John Goodman And Ken Watanabe Join The Autobot Voice Cast in Michael Bay's 'Transformers: Age Of Extinction'". Michael Bay. Retrieved May 8, 2014.
  27. ^ Shackleton, Liz (May 14, 2019). "Japan 2011 earthquake, tsunami drama 'Fukushima 50' leads Kadokawa slate (exclusive)". Screen Daily. Media Business Insight Limited. Retrieved August 28, 2019.
  28. ^ Grobar, Matt (February 10, 2022). "Ken Watanabe Replaces Benedict Wong In Gareth Edwards' Film 'True Love' For New Regency". Deadline Hollywood.
  29. ^ "スペシャルドラマ 坂の上の雲" [Special drama - Clouds on the slope]. NHK (in Japanese). Retrieved September 16, 2019.
  30. ^ "ランボー 4Kレストア版". HMV. Retrieved October 5, 2021.
  31. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Awards for Ken Watanabe". IMDB. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
  32. ^ "Drama Academy Awards". Tokyograph. Archived from the original on January 29, 2010. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
  33. ^ "Blue Ribbon Awards: 'Hula Girl' Aoi on top". Tokyograph. January 24, 2009. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
  34. ^ "Another win for 'Hula Girl' at Japan Academy Awards". Tokyograph. February 16, 2007. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
  35. ^ "TBS producer wins Fujimoto Prize". Tokyograph. June 8, 2007. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
  36. ^ "Kinema Junpo announces Best 10". Tokyograph. January 9, 2007. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
  37. ^ "34th Hochi Film Awards". Tokyograph. November 28, 2009. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
  38. ^ "33rd Japan Academy Awards". Tokyograph. March 6, 2010. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
  39. ^ "58th Annual GRAMMY Awards Nominees". The GRAMMYs. Archived from the original on December 7, 2014. Retrieved January 28, 2016.

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