Yasuke: Japan’s First Black Samurai

Between 1467 and 1615, Japan’s Sengoku era witnessed immense political shifts, widespread warfare, and transformative cultural transitions. The heightened need for samurai during this period was a definitive turning point in the nation’s chronicles.

A riveting episode from this era revolves around Yasuke, recognized as the African samurai. As a foreigner, he established a close rapport with Oda Nobunaga and actively engaged in pivotal moments of that epoch.

The prelude to Yasuke becoming Japan’s pioneering black samurai remains shrouded in ambiguity. No concrete records sketch his life before reaching Japanese shores.

Details about how Yasuke entered Alessandro Vaglignano’s employ or his whereabouts prior remain speculative.

There’s a belief among some that he might have been ensnared in the European or Arab slave trade, possibly hailing from regions like Congo, Angola, or Ethiopia. Another theory postulates he belonged to the Dinka tribe in South Sudan, noted for their towering stature.

An intriguing 1672 narration by Jesuit Pere Francois Solier posits Yasuke’s origins in Mozambique, though the basis of this assertion remains undisclosed.

Mysteries surround not just his birthplace but also his age, which fluctuates between 16 and 28 in various sources. Even the designation ‘Yasuke’ may be a localized adaptation or phonetic representation of his original name.

Certain aspects about him, however, are indisputable. Yasuke showcased formidable martial prowess and towered over most, especially in the Japanese context.

Measuring 6 foot 2, Yasuke exceeded the stature of an average Japanese man of that era by 14 inches, who typically stood close to five feet. To provide a contemporary comparison, it’s like standing beside NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal to perceive a similar height disparity.

For those unacquainted, the samurai represented an exclusive class of warriors dedicated to serving Japan’s daimyo. Their conduct was steered by ‘bushido’, an ethical compass governing their values, way of life, and actions.

This warrior code can be likened to European chivalry.

Earning the title of samurai was no simple feat; by 1603, they constituted a mere 10% of the Japanese populace. It wasn’t a title casually adopted.

The majority of samurai initiated their martial training from a tender age, emphasizing why Yasuke’s narrative as the sole African samurai captivates so profoundly.

In 1579, as an aide to Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, Yasuke set foot in Japan. His robust physique and commanding presence captured the admiration of Oda Nobunaga, who inducted him into the samurai order.

Oda Nobunaga, a revered daimyo, remains integral to the Sengoku era’s legacy. Recognized as one of Japan’s eminent consolidators, his leadership played a pivotal role in molding Japan into a singular nation.

By the time of his demise, he had amalgamated half of Japan, bestowing political cohesion upon previously tumultuous territories. His passing paved the way for Japan’s eventual complete unification.

On March 23, 1581, Nobunaga became acquainted with Yasuke, who had sparked tremendous curiosity among the locals due to his towering stature and distinct skin color.

The narrative recounts that while Nobunaga was in the vicinity of Honno-Ji Temple, a bustling noise from an assembled crowd caught his attention.

Thomas Lockley, in his book “African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, A Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan,” posits that Nobunaga might have perceived Yasuke as a divine protector or a deity symbolizing prosperity.

In the cultural context of Japan, black statues were often linked to prosperity deities at temples. Intrigued, Nobunaga beckoned Yasuke.

Upon laying eyes on Yasuke’s dark complexion, Nobunaga initially believed it to be artificial coloring. He commanded Yasuke to disrobe and had attendants attempt to cleanse what he assumed was ink from Yasuke’s skin.

Upon realizing the authenticity of Yasuke’s complexion, he was elated and celebrated Yasuke with a grand feast. Overwhelmed by Yasuke’s unique appearance and prowess, Nobunaga appointed him as a trusted aide, retainer, and personal guard.

Yasuke’s presence in Japan was nothing short of extraordinary. His appearance invariably drew attention, eliciting awe and wonder. Owing to the prevalent black-colored Buddhist statues, many locals speculated that Yasuke was a heavenly envoy. Some tales even suggest that structures crumbled under the sheer weight of the masses that congregated to witness him.

In one particular incident, Yasuke found himself navigating on horseback through a throng, fleeing from an ensuing chaos. This pandemonium led to casualties, and he sought refuge in a Jesuit sanctuary.

Under Alessandro Valignano’s guidance, Yasuke was well-versed in Japanese culture upon his arrival in Kyoto. His linguistic skills rapidly expanded, and he became proficient in the Japanese language.

It wasn’t long before Yasuke possessed his own abode and a traditional katana. Nobunaga’s admiration for him was evident, even ensuring Yasuke received monetary gifts from his nephew. A testament to Yasuke’s esteemed position was an invitation to dine with Nobunaga — an honor reserved for the upper echelons of samurai.

In the service of Oda Nobunaga, Yasuke interacted with some eminent figures of the Sengoku era. Notable among them were Tokugawa Ieyasu, the eventual founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, and possibly Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another prominent unifier of Japan.

However, some encounters were grim; he came into contact with Akechi Mitsuhide, the man behind Nobunaga’s assassination, albeit briefly reigning as shogun until Hideyoshi’s triumph.

Oda Nobunaga’s progressive mindset significantly contributed to his triumphs. He embraced foreign innovations and customs. His fondness for Western attire is well-documented, and he is even credited as the first Japanese individual to savor wine from a chalice.

His Western fascination also redefined Japanese warfare strategies. In 1549, keen on modern weaponry, Nobunaga procured 500 matchlocks, locally termed “tanegashima.”

In 1582, the combined forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga took on the Takeda clan led by Takeda Katsuyori. The Takeda clan staunchly opposed Nobunaga’s ambition to consolidate Japan. Yasuke participated in this pivotal clash.

Ultimately, Takeda decided to destroy his castle and ended his life in a different fortress. Coming closer to realizing his vision of a cohesive Japan, Nobunaga’s journey was abruptly halted the same year.

Akechi Mitsuhide, with a massive force of 13,000, trapped Nobunaga within Kyoto’s Honno-Ji temple. In the intense conflict that followed, Yasuke stood by his daimyo’s side till the end. After being struck by an arrow and foreseeing his defeat, Nobunaga chose to commit seppuku for an honorable exit.

Conventional samurai culture dictates that a warrior would either follow their daimyo in death or become Ronin (leaderless samurai). While Yasuke had embraced many local customs, this might have been a step too far. Instead, he allied with Oda Nobutada, Nobunaga’s son, hoping to serve him.

However, this association was short-lived. Oda Nobutada, like his father, ended his life via seppuku after Mitsuhide’s forces caught up. The motives behind Mitsuhide’s betrayal remain somewhat enigmatic.

For a fleeting 13 days, he enjoyed the status of Japan’s shogun, only to be overthrown when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, allied with the Mori clan, decimated his forces. As Mitsuhide tried to escape, Nakamura Chobei, a bandit chief, executed him. Post Nobutada’s seppuku, Yasuke surrendered his blade to Mitsuhide.

Instead of mandating Yasuke’s death, Mitsuhide perceived him as an outsider due to his African heritage. Yasuke faced demeaning treatment and was eventually left at the Jesuits’ “southern barbarians” temple. The Jesuits, however, warmly embraced Yasuke upon his return.

The latter chapters of Yasuke’s life remain obscured as he vanishes from documented history thereafter. However, enduring tales withstand the test of time, and Yasuke’s narrative is no exception.

In the 20th century, Kurusu Yoshio penned a children’s book named Kuro-suke, which introduces younger generations to a fictional rendition of Yasuke. This tale showcases a character, Kurosan Yasuke or Kuro-suke, who mirrors the actual Yasuke’s journey, including the tragic Battle of the Honno-Ji temple.

The book narrates the gut-wrenching event of Nobunaga’s seppuku, a depiction uncommon in contemporary children’s literature, and concludes with a touching moment featuring Kuro-suke in introspection.

Regardless of the version, Yasuke’s journey from an outsider to Japan’s inaugural black Samurai remains a captivating chapter of the Sengoku era. His legacy continues today, immortalized in literature and animated series.