The Amazing Story of Yasuke: The Forgotten African Samurai

Samurai are among the most enduring symbols of Japanese cultural heritage, thus unsurprisingly, most samurai were Japanese. There are, however, examples of non-Japanese who became samurai as well. The most famous western example is the English sailor William Adams (1564-1620) who came to Japan in 1600 and was able to rise through the ranks to eventually become a samurai. But one of the most surprising examples would probably be an African by the name of Yasuke who was made a samurai by the Japanese Daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) after taking on the role of his body guard. Yasuke was brought to Japan in 1579 by Jesuit missionaries and gained the attention and interest of the Japanese nobleman.

Yasuke’s Rise as a Samurai

Yasuke’s origins are shrouded in mystery.  He was probably born between 1555 and 1566, but even that is not certain. Historians are not even sure of the origin of his name, though it is most likely the Japanese form of his original name. According to one source, he may have been a Makua from Mozambique. It has also been suggested that he was from Angola or Ethiopia. Additionally, he may have been a European-born slave from Portugal.

Whatever his origin, Yasuke first appears in history in 1579 as an attendant of the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano coming to Japan to visit the missions that had been set up there. Yasuke was most likely a slave. Yasuke’s black skin generated a lot of interest from the native Japanese and many are said to have come to see him at the church which the Jesuits had constructed in Kyoto. This commotion caught the interest of the Daimyo, Lord Nobunaga, who asked for an audience with him.

17th century Japanese painting depicting a group of Portuguese foreigners.

17th century Japanese painting depicting a group of Portuguese foreigners. 

Nobunaga apparently was skeptical that Yasuke’s black skin was genuine and had him remove his shirt and rub his skin to show that it wasn’t ink. Nobunaga was nonetheless impressed by Yasuke’s height. He is recorded to have been over 6 feet (182cm) tall in an era where most Japanese men were closer to 5 feet (152 cm) tall. This height would have made him very imposing to most indigenous inhabitants of the islands.

Nobunaga soon made Yasuke his retainer and body guard. He was eventually made a samurai in 1581 and stationed at Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle. After this, Nobunaga would invite Yasuke to dine at his table, an unusual privilege even for a samurai. He was also made the Daimyo’s sword bearer with his own katana. During this time, he learned to speak Japanese fluently as well.

An artist's illustration of Yasuke the samurai.

An artist’s illustration of Yasuke the samurai. 

The End of His Samurai Career

Yasuke’s career as a samurai would not last long. In 1582, Nobunaga’s general, Mitsuhide, started a coup to overthrow him. Mitsuhide stormed the temple where Nobunaga was staying in Kyoto. Nobunaga, convinced of his imminent defeat at the hands of his treacherous general, committed Seppuku, ritual suicide. After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke fled to back to the Azuchi castle and entered the service of his son Odo Nobutada. His son however also committed suicide after suffering defeat at the hands of Mitsuhide.

An imagined portrait of Oda Nobunaga, by Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolò, 1583–1590.

An imagined portrait of Oda Nobunaga, by Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolò, 1583–1590.

Mitsuhide was not very impressed with Yasuke and dismissed him as “a beast” and not a true samurai. The reason for this was that rather than committing honor suicide, the norm after defeat in Japanese culture, Yasuke apparently offered his sword to Mitsuhide following Western custom. It was undoubtedly because of this rejection that Yasuke returned to the service of Valignano and soon returned to obscurity. The Jesuits, however, were glad to see that he had survived and thanked God for his return.

African-Japanese Contact

There is little indisputable evidence for an African presence in Japan before Yasuke, though there are some interesting historical examples which suggest the possibility of African-Japanese contact. There is a Japanese proverb which says “For a Samurai to be brave, he must have a bit of black blood.” It is uncertain of course whether this is referring to people with dark skin or some other meaning of the word black. It is possible that the expression “black blood” could be completely unrelated to someone who is of Black African descent and have had a very different meaning in ancient Japanese culture.

Samurai armor.

Samurai armor.

The one problem with this hypothesis, however, is that the color black, in Japanese culture, is associated with death, fear, and sorrow (among other similar concepts.) It is possible that the ancient Japanese believed that bravery required these qualities, but it is not necessary to assume that they did, and it is more likely that the Japanese didn’t associate these qualities with bravery. It would probably be yet another quality associated with the color black.

Another figure in Japanese history considered by some to be of African descent is Sakanouye No Tamuramaro, a warrior who came to be considered a paragon of warrior virtues. He lived during the Heian Period (794-1185 AD) from about 758 to 811 and was a palace guard of Emperor Kammu (reigned 781-806). He was placed in command of the forces that the emperor sent to fight the Ainu. This warrior is said to have had a “black complexion.”

‘Sakanoue Tamuramaro in Rain of Arrows.’

‘Sakanoue Tamuramaro in Rain of Arrows.’ 

Once again, this is not unequivocal evidence for an African presence in ancient Japan, but It does nonetheless reveal that the history of contact between Japan and the rest of the world may have been more complex than previously believed.

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