Article: Top 10 Most Popular Japanese Actors Of All Time

Japan's acting industry is one of the oldest in history, completing an incredible hundred-plus years. According to statistics, Japanese cinema is one of the most commercially successful industries in the world, with its worth measured at 146.6 billion Japanese yen in 2022. While directors and behind-the-crews deserve huge credit for this achievement, it is the actors that add the most to the industry and make its worth known to the international audience. Japanese actors enjoy global adoration for their unwavering reverence for their craft, which has helped them gain massive fandoms and critical acclaim. Many veteran and contemporary actors have become the flagbearers of Japanese cinema worldwide. Let's take a look at some of these legendary actors.

1. Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune is considered one of the best actors and producers of Japanese cinema. He has collaborated with the legendary filmmaker and painter Akira Kurosawa. Mifune served as the lead in Akiro’s five projects, namely Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo. Born in 1920, Mifune has received praise for his intense acting skills and on-screen presence. He is identified as a legendary figure due to his contributions towards making Japanese cinema a niche of global interest. The accolades he received for his career include six Blue Ribbon Awards, three Mainichi Film Awards, two Japan Academy Film Prize nominations, two Kinema Junpo Awards, and a Venice Film Festival Award.

2. Tatsuya Nakadai

Tatsuya Nakadai’s career is marked by collaborations with prominent Japanese directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi. His discography includes commercial successes and fan-favorite movies like The Human Condition trilogy, Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion, and Kwaidan. Nakadai’s differentiating trait as an actor is his ability to express emotions seamlessly. He is well known for his magnificent character portrayal, in which he exudes superb emotional range, depth, and versatility. The actor’s portfolio includes a diverse range of characters. From the role of a noble samurai in Harakiri to the portrayal of a tormented soldier in Hitokiri, his range is distinct.

3. Takashi Shimura

Takashi Shimura is best known for the number of projects he overtook in his acting career.  During his career of forty-seven years between 1934 and 1981, Shimura acted in close to 200 films. He received critical acclaim and widespread recognition for his nuanced acting skills. Out of all the actors filmmaker Akiro Kurosawa worked with, Shimura is the one with whom he had the most projects. Shimura appeared in  Akira Kurosawa’s twenty-one directorial films in titles such as Drunken Angel, Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai. He was honored with a Purple Ribbon in 1974 by the Japanese government for his immeasurable contribution to the arts.

4. Ken Watanabe

Ken Watanabe earned widespread adoration when he starred opposite Tom Cruise in The Lost Samurai in 2003. He is a respected actor in the international sphere for his work in various English films such as Letters from Iwo Jima and The Last Samurai, for the latter he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Besides these roles, Watanabe has acted in Christopher Nolan's films Batman Begins and Inception as well as other films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Pokémon Detective Pikachu. He has nabbed the Japan Academy Film Prize for Best Actor twice, one for Memories of Tomorrow and the other for Shizumanu Taiyō.

5. Haruma Miura

Haruma Miura was a Japanese actor and singer who departed too soon. He began his career as a child actor in the television series Agiri and gained recognition for his role in the 2007 movie Koizara. The latter role earned him a Japan Academy Prize in the Newcomer of the Year category. He became a fan favorite owing to his versatile acting skills and handsome looks. He also dabbled in the music industry and released two mini-albums.

6. Hiroshi Abe

Abe’s breakthrough in the acting industry came in 1993 he starred as a bisexual detective director in Kohei Tsuka’s directorial Atami Murder Case Monte Carlo Illusion. Known for his charismatic performances, his best-known and widely praised works include Thermae Romae, Still Walking, and Chasuke’s Journey. His masterful work in the television series Man Who Can't Get Married was recognized with the FNS Good Work Grand Prize in 2006. For his performances in Still Walking and Aoi Tori, Abe won the Best Actor award at the 63rd Mainichi Film Award.

7. Takeshi Kaneshiro

Kaneshiro is a Japanese-Taiwanese singer and actor. While he started as a singer, he made a successful transition into the acting industry as well. Not only is he famous in Taiwan and Japan, but he has also made his mark as an actor in other Asian countries, such as Hong Kong cinema. His captivating performance in projects like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Red Cliff has earned him a solid and loyal fan base. Since 1992, he has released nine full-length studio albums. He won the Best Leading Actor award at the 2nd annual Golden Screen Awards for his role in the romantic comedy This Is Not What I Expected.

8. Tadanobu Asano

Marvel fans are probably well-versed with Tadanobu, as he has portrayed the role of the Warriors’ Three-member Hogun in Marvel’s Thor franchise. His film debut was in the film Swimming Upstream, though his first significant and successful role was in the 1993 movie Shunji Iwai's Fried Dragon Fish. Other widely praised works of his include samurai films Gohatto and Zatoichi and the critically acclaimed project Bright Future. He was also part of a Japanese rock band, MUSHROOMS.

9. Brian Tee

Brian Tee is the professional name of Japan-born actor Jae Beom Takata, who is most famous for his role as Dr. Ethan Choi in the medical drama Chicago Med and its spin-offs. He has also other major American projects in his filmography like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, The Wolverine, Jurassic World, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. His charismatic on-screen persona and versatile acting skills have established him as one of the most Japanese actors making waves in the international acting sphere.

10. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa is an American-Japanese actor, producer, and martial arts artist. His breakthrough as an actor came in 1987 when he portrayed the role of Eunuch Chang in the period drama The Last Emperor. Since then, he has acted in various Japanese movies/dramas and starred in some of Hollywood’s most prominent projects. Some of his most successful works include Licence to Kill, Showdown in Little Tokyo, and Tekken. He demonstrated his martial arts prowess in the film The Perfect Weapon.