His father had been the governor of the Chiba Prefecture in Japan.
His father belonged to the military nobility but he left the Naval Academy for a theatrical stage career. He worked with the female tragic star Sada Yacco. Then he traveled through Europe, studying the classics, and returned to Japan where he presented works by William Shakespeare ("Otelo" in his own translation), Henrik Ibsen and others, in the Imperial Dramatic Company. During a US tour in 1913, legendary producer-director Thomas H. Ince noticed him and prompted him into a film career playing exotic villains.
One of eight actors of Asian descent nominated for an Academy Award in an acting category. The others are Miyoshi Umeki who won Best Supporting Actress nominated for Sayonara (1957), Mako nominated for The Sand Pebbles (1966), Ben Kingsley who won Best Actor for Gandhi (1982), Haing S. Ngor who won Best Supporting Actor for The Killing Fields (1984), Pat Morita nominated for The Karate Kid (1984), Ken Watanabe nominated for The Last Samurai (2003), and Rinko Kikuchi nominated for Babel (2006).
According to silent film historian Kalton C. Lahue, Hayakawa owned a gold-plated Pierce Arrow, and hired a liveried footman to go along with it. When fellow actor Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle also acquired the same type of car, Hayakawa donated his no longer one-of-a-kind auto to the Long Island Fire Department.
He and his wife Tsuru Aoki were famous for their lavish parties during the early 1920s. According to historian Kalton C. Lahue, they held frequent luncheons for 150 guests, buffet suppers for as many as 900 and sit-down dinners for 250.
During the high point of his career, Hayakawa and wife Tsuru Aoki lived in a landmark home, built in the style of a French castle, at the corner of Argyle and Franklin streets in Hollywood. Demolished in 1956, this corner is now the site of the Franklin Street entrance to the Hollywood / 101 Freeway.