Born and raised in Japan, Mako moved to the USA after WWII. An architecture student, he got into set design and later acting through some friends in off-Broadway theater and later studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. He co-founded an Asian-American theater company, the East/West Players, with six other actors in 1965 and was noticed by Hollywood shortly thereafter. Mako's first major film role won him an Oscar nomination and remains his most memorable: that of Po-Han, the funny, tragic engine-room attendant and surprise boxing champ in "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), starring Steve McQueen.
A martial arts expert, Mako later appeared in many standard-issue action films such as "Armed Response" (1986), "Silent Assassins" (1988) and "The Perfect Weapon" (1991), and played many Hawaiians onscreen, as in--appropriately enough--"The Hawaiians" (1970) and the TV series "Hawaiian Heat" (1984). He played Akiro the wizard in Arnold Schwarzenegger's two "Conan" extravaganzas, but his more interesting roles have been in such offbeat items as "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (1988); "The Wash" (1988), about the effects of divorce on a Japanese-American family; and "An Unremarkable Life" (1989), as a Chinese-American garage owner who disrupts the lives of two elderly sisters. More recently, he co-starred in one segment of the Showtime TV-movie "Riot" (1997), which examined the 1992 L.A. riots from the points of view of various city residents.