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Meet Yasuke, an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai

Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai
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Meet Yasuke, an African slave, who arrived in Japan in 1579 and became the first black Samurai. His arrival caused such a sensation that people climbed over one another to get a glimpse of him with some being crushed to death, according to historian Lawrence Winkler.


He arrived in Japan in the service of Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, Visitor of Missions in the Indies, in India. Yasuke is thought by some to have been the first African that Nobunaga had ever seen and he was one of the several Africans to have come with the Portuguese to Japan during the Nanban trade. He was also present during the Honnō-ji Incident, the forced suicide of Nobunaga at the hands of his general Akechi Mitsuhide on 21 June 1582.

Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai

When Yasuke was presented to Oda Nobunaga, the Japanese daimyō thought that his skin must have been coloured with black ink. Nobunaga had him strip from the waist up and made him scrub his skin. These events are recorded in a 1581 letter of the Jesuit Luís Fróis to Lourenço Mexia, and in the 1582 Annual Report of the Jesuit Mission in Japan, also by Fróis. These were published in Cartas que os padres e irmãos da Companhia de Jesus escreverão dos reynos de Japão e China II (1598), normally known simply as Cartas. When Nobunaga realized that the African’s skin was indeed black, he took an interest in him.



Yasuke was in service to Valignano most likely as a bodyguard. “As a priest he wasn’t allowed to have any soldiers or guards,” Lockley said of the Jesuit missionary. “Euphemistically, they had valets—manservants if you’d like—who were also versed in weapons.” In 1581, Valignano headed to what was then the capital city, Kyoto, to meet with Nobunaga and request permission to leave Japan. It was on this trip that Yasuke crossed paths with the feudal lord.


Within a year, Yasuke had joined the upper echelons of Japan’s warrior class, the samurai. Before long, he was speaking Japanese fluently and riding alongside Nobunaga in battle.


“His height was 6 shaku 2 sun (roughly 6 feet, 2 inches (1.88m)… he was black, and his skin was like charcoal,” a fellow samurai, Matsudaira Ietada, described him in his diary in 1579.


The average height of a Japanese man in 1900 was 157.9m (5 feet 2 inches) so Yasuke would have towered over most Japanese people in the 16th Century, when people were generally shorter due to worse nutrition.


Yasuke fought alongside the Nobutada forces but was eventually captured. When Yasuke was presented to Akechi, the warlord allegedly said that the black man was an animal as well as not Japanese and should thus not be killed, but taken to the Christian church in Kyoto, the Nanbanji.  However, there is some doubt regarding the credibility of this fate. There is no further written information about him after this according to Wikipedia.



There are no records of Yasuke’s date or country of birth. Most historians say he came from Mozambique but some have suggested other countries such as Ethiopia or Nigeria, BBC reports.

Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai
Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai

What is known, however, is that Yasuke arrived in Japan with an Italian Jesuit named Alessandro Valignano on an inspection tour, and appears in recorded history only between 1579 and 1582.


Some experts say he was a slave, but it is hard to say.


Floyd Webb and Deborah DeSnoo, filmmakers working on a documentary about him, believe assertions that he was a slave to be speculative at best.


“It would have been impossible for Yasuke to rise to the rank of a samurai in just a year without a warrior background,” Ms DeSnoo says.


Samurais often began their training in childhood.


Moreover, the African warrior and the Japanese warlord had a lot in common.


Nobunaga was a great fan of the martial arts and spent a lot of time practising them. He was also an eccentric person, who according to Mr Floyd Webb, a film maker; often dressed in Western-style clothes and sought the company of highly disciplined and intelligent people.


“[Yasuke] carried the warrior spirit,” Mr Webb says. He understood the cultural language of Japan and loved to dance and perform Utenzi – a historic form of Swahili narrative poetry celebrating heroic deeds, Mr Webb adds. This suggests Yasuke could have come from Mozambique, as some historians believe, given that Swahili is still spoken in some northern parts of the country.



Similarly, Nobunaga was a lover of Noh Drama – a form of classical Japanese musical drama – and it is widely reported that he was a patron of the arts.


Nobunaga grew fond of Yasuke and treated him like family – the African was among a very select group of people allowed to dine with him.


“Nobunaga praised Yasuke’s strength and stature, describing his might as that of 10 men,” Ms DeSnoo says.


Yasuke met Nobunaga shortly after his arrival in Japan and he piqued his interest, the filmmakers say, by being a talented conversationalist.


Yasuke already spoke some Japanese and the two men got on well, according to academic Thomas Lockley, who has written a book on Yasuke.

French-Ivorian writer Serge Bile reads a copy of his last book "Yasuke" at the library of the French Cultural Centre (CCF) in Abidjan on 28 March 2018.
Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai

This is not the first time that Yasuke has appeared in popular culture. Author Kurusu Yoshio published the children’s book Kuro-suke about the samurai in 1968. Yasuke also showed up as a playable character in the 2017 video game Nioh. And in 2019, before Chadwick Boseman’s death, it was announced that the actor would play Yasuke in a film based on the warrior’s story.


The Netflix anime series takes a new approach in telling Yasuke’s story—one that combines historical elements with fantastical components. “Animation is always the medium where you can do things that real people can’t do,” Thomas told TIME. In the show, there are plenty of giant robots, magical beasts and otherworldly fight sequences involving supernatural powers. But there are also scenes inspired by events recorded about the African samurai’s life.



One of the first scenes in the anime shows the first meeting between Nobunaga and Yasuke. After the feudal lord applauds him for winning a fight on the streets, he asks for Yasuke to be cleaned, thinking that his skin is covered in dirt. “Did you ink your skin black?” Nobunaga inquires when Yasuke’s appearance does not change. “I was born with black skin,” Yasuke responds. This interaction is not too unlike the actual initial encounter between the men. “Yasuke was brought before Nobunaga and he didn’t believe Yasuke’s true skin color was black,” said Thomas Lockley, a co-author of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan along with Geoffrey Girard. Lockley described this event from March of 1581. “[Nobunaga] ordered him scrubbed. Of course Yasuke’s skin remains intact,” he said. Nobunaga then threw a party to welcome the man into his court. According to Lockley, Yasuke entered the feudal lord’s service sometime within the next few days.


Theory of Yasuke

According to TIME, some have said that Yasuke was a slave, and Lockley acknowledges the theory but disagrees. “Personally I don’t think he was a slave in any sense of the word, I think he was a free actor,” Lockley said. The author speculates that given the circumstances of how the African man arrived at his employment with Valignano, it’s possible that Yasuke was enslaved as a child and taken from Africa to India. There, Lockley said the man could have been a military slave or an indentured soldier, but he “probably got his freedom before meeting Valignano.”


Standing at more than six feet tall and described as having the strength of 10 men, Yasuke left a strong impression on Nobunaga. “It seems like he was a confidant, Nobunaga is recorded as talking often with him,” Lockley said in a follow-up email. “He was also a weapon bearer, and probably served in some kind of bodyguard capacity.”


Lockley also explained that in Yasuke’s time, the idea of a “samurai” was a very fluid concept. “You don’t have to possess any particular killing skills to be a samurai,” the author said. “Anybody who took up weapons on behalf of a lord could technically call themself a samurai, or could be called a samurai.”


In the years following Yasuke’s service to the feudal lord, it’s possible that hundreds of other foreigners—from places including Africa, China, Korea—were employed in a similar way as the African warrior. “He is supposedly the first recorded,” Lockley explained. The difference is that other foreigners that followed were not in service to Nobunaga. “There are several records of Black Africans serving more minor lords, and we don’t know so much about them because the lords they were serving were more minor,” he said.

Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai
Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai

Sumō yūrakuzu byōbu, drawn in 1605 by an anonymous artist. Author Thomas Lockley said that the individual in green, in the third panel from the left, is believed to be Nobunaga. He said it’s highly likely that the Black man depicted in the artwork is Yasuke.



Sumō yūrakuzu byōbu, drawn in 1605 by an anonymous artist. Author Thomas Lockley said that the individual in green, in the third panel from the left, is believed to be Nobunaga. He said it’s highly likely that the Black man depicted in the artwork is Yasuke. (Sacchisachi/Wiki Commons)


What happened to Yasuke when Nobunaga died?
En route to a battle in 1582, Nobunaga was ambushed by his general Akechi Mitsuhide. This would come to be known as the Honnō-ji Incident, in which Nobunaga died in the Honnō-ji temple on June 21. Lockley said that Akechi and his soldiers were heading to the same battlefield, but turned around and attacked Nobunaga in an act of betrayal. “[Nobunaga] had 30 men, Akechi had 13,000 so it was a foregone conclusion,” Lockley said. Yasuke was one of the 30 men with the feudal lord.


Nobunaga was at the Honnō-ji temple at the time of the ambush. He performed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide that involves slicing open the abdomen. It’s regarded as a way of retaining honor even in defeat. “It was his last victory,” Lockley said. Instead of being killed, performing seppuku sends the message of being in control of one’s death. The ritual sometimes involves a kaishakunin, or a designated “second” who beheads the individual. “It’s a symbolic action, cutting your belly, to show the purity of your intentions,” Lockley explained. “But obviously nobody really wants to sit there while the guts are coming out.” A kaishakunin, usually a friend, would then cut off the head. Lockley said it’s traditionally held that Mori Ranmaru, an attendant to Nobunaga who was considered to be the feudal lord’s lover, acted as his kaishakunin.


Yasuke was in the temple with Nobunaga when he performed seppuku. “There’s no record, but tradition holds it that [Yasuke] was the one who took Nobunaga’s head to save it from the enemy,” Lockley said. “If Akechi, the enemy, had gotten the head and he’d been able to hold up the head, he would have had a powerful symbol of legitimacy.” Lockley explained that an act like that would have given Akechi credibility as a ruler. After the attack on Nobunaga, Akechi did not get much support and was soon defeated in battle. “Yasuke, therefore, by escaping with the head, could have been seen and has been seen as changing Japanese history,” Lockley said.


Shortly after Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined Oda Nobutada, the son of Nobunaga, who was nearby. “At that point, [Yasuke] fights again, a second battle of the morning,” Lockley said. “Nobutada has 200 men, not 30 men, but of course Akechi still has 13,000 so that’s again, another foregone conclusion.” On the same day of June 21, 1582, Nobutada also performed seppuku. Lockley said that Yasuke was most likely left wounded on the battlefield. The last record of Yasuke is of the man being escorted by Akechi’s troops to a Jesuit mission house.



The anime series Yasuke takes the void of knowledge post-1582 as a starting point: the Honnō-ji Incident is its opening scene. Kicking off with this historical setting, the show then dives into a reimagined, fantastical story about the legendary Black samurai.


The book, which dramatises Yasuke’s life, ends with a bittersweet note: after Nobunaga kills himself, Kuro-suke (Yasuke) is taken to a temple where he dreams of his parents in Africa and weeps.


Entertainment industry newspaper Variety reported in May that Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman is set to play Yasuke in a forthcoming feature film.


It will be the second Hollywood film being developed on the life of Yasuke.


In 2017, Hollywood studio Lionsgate announced it was developing a film on the life of the black samurai.


Nearly 500 years later, his unusual life continues to awe and inspire people.

Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai
Meet Yasuke, an an African slave, who became the first Black Samurai

In summary, “Yasuke,” is a fantasy take on a real African samurai warrior set in feudal Japan, which debuted April 29. Yasuke was a man of African decent who served the Japanese feudal lord Oda Nobunaga during the 16th century.


Credit: Time/BBC/Wikipedia

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