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Yasuke: The African Samurai

Unveiling one of history’s most intriguing secrets, we introduce Yasuke – the only person of African descent to attain the prestigious rank of samurai. Yasuke arrived on Japanese soil in 1579 CE, serving as a formidable bodyguard to Alessandro Valignano, who had been appointed to inspect Jesuit missions in the Indies. With his towering height and impressive physique, Yasuke quickly became a legendary figure in Japan, his unique appearance garnering him celebrity-like status.


But beyond the fantastical tales and fictional accounts that have been woven around him, Yasuke’s story is rooted in truth. Born sometime in the 1550s, Yasuke was just a child when he was torn from his family and taken on a harrowing journey as a slave. He was trafficked across the Indian Ocean, through Arab countries, and sold to Portuguese slave traders, who also trained him as a child soldier in Gujarat and Goa, India. Yasuke eventually became a skilled warrior and earned his freedom while still in Goa. It is unclear as to whether Yasuke earned his freedom, or if he was set free by the passing Jesuits.

Goa was a bustling hub of trade, mission, and military activity for the Portuguese in India, and one of the largest centers of the African slave trade. It was in Goa that Yasuke met Alessandro Valignano, who had spent six long years traveling from Rome, through countries such as Portugal, Mozambique, India, Malaya, and Macau. Alessandro and his Jesuits were on a mission to convert thousands of Japanese to Christianity, and so, together, Yasuke and Alessandro set sail for Japan, arriving in the port of Kuchinotsu, on the southern island of Kyushu, in 1579. Quickly mastering the language and serving as a fierce protector. Yasuke’s story, though shrouded in mystery, is a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit.

At the time, Japan was in the midst of a brutal civil war, known as the era of warring states. Strongmen from mini-states across the country battled for power, leaving the land in chaos. But a semblance of peace was restored when the remaining local feudal warlords, or daimyo, sought to unify Japan. One of the most powerful among them was Nobunaga Oda, who controlled Kyoto, the dominant center of the country, and is considered one of Japan’s three unifiers along with Ieyasu Tokugawa and Hideyoshi Toyotomi.

Yasuke found himself in the middle of all this, in a foreign land, where the fate of an entire nation was being decided. With his unique background and experiences, he must have been an interesting figure to the Japanese warlords and could have had a fascinating role to play in the tumultuous period of Japan’s history.

As Alessandro Valignano journeyed through Japan, he encountered fierce resistance from warlords, radical monks, and bandits all vying for control of the land. To protect himself and his fellow Jesuits, he always turned to the towering Yasuke – a former military man with a keen eye for danger. Using his extensive military experience, Yasuke trained local militias and honed his own skills, including mastering the deadly art of Japanese martial arts and swordplay.


Before 1581, Yasuke was thrust into the spotlight when he was introduced to Oda Nobunaga, the aforementioned Japanese lord who was rapidly unifying the country. Yasuke’s impressive martial abilities caught the attention of the powerful warlord, who saw Yasuke not just as a source of entertainment, but as a valuable asset to his entourage. With his love for European fashions and foreign knowledge, Nobunaga was immediately captivated by Yasuke’s dark skin color, which he had never seen before, and at first even believed to be a type of ink that would wipe off.

But as he got to know Yasuke, his intrigue only deepened, ultimately leading him to take Yasuke into his own service. Oda marveled at the stunning handsomeness and unparalleled strength of Yasuke, as recorded in the Lord Nobunaga Chronicle – the principal Japanese source that tells his story. The diary of the legendary samurai, Matsudaira Ietada, further described Yasuke’s awe-inspiring height of 6 shaku 2 sun (approximately 6 feet 2 inches, or 1.88 meters) and his striking black skin, so dark and smooth it was said to resemble charcoal.

In a matter of weeks, Yasuke had risen from a mere curiosity to a respected samurai, valued not just for his skills in battle, but also for his worldly knowledge. Oda and Yasuke formed a close bond, with the warlord often seeking out Yasuke’s counsel and conversation. In Japan’s feudal society, the samurai class held immense power, and Yasuke, through his exceptional abilities and quick rise in rank, had become a respected member of this elite group. Yasuke also had the honor to regularly dine with Oda, an honor that very few are granted.

As Yasuke’s reputation grew, Nobunaga bestowed upon him the highest honor, making him a full-fledged samurai with his own household and servants. Yasuke’s rise to fame as Japan’s most renowned foreign-born warrior was nothing short of extraordinary, but his tenure with the powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga, was all too brief. Although there are no records of Yasuke’s exact rank or salary, some historians speculate that he served as a page or bodyguard to Oda.

In 1581, Yasuke joined Oda’s forces as they invaded the mountain-ringed province of Iga, a stronghold of the feared ninja warriors. With an army of 40,000 to 60,000 troops, Oda successfully conquered the province, following a failed attempt by his son, Nobukatsu, in 1579. This marked Yasuke’s first military campaign under Oda’s command.

However, his second and final campaign would be his last. In June 1582, Oda’s samurai general, Mitsuhide Akechi, led a surprise attack on Oda’s residence in Kyoto, triggering the fateful Battle of Honno-ji Temple. The battle ultimately put an end to Oda’s ambitious plans for consolidating power in Japan. With defeat looming, Oda chose to end his own life through the traditional Japanese ritual of seppuku, rather than face the dishonor of capture. In this fatal ritual, the unfortunate stabs a (short) sword into his stomach, slicing horizontally to tear out the inner organs while an attendant performs a quick decapitation, slicing off the head nice and clean. In this case, Ranmaru Mori had the honor of being Oda’s attendant.

A Shroud of Mystery

It is said that upon the death of his master, Oda Nobunaga, the last order given to Yasuke was to deliver his head and sword to his son, to ensure the continuation of the clan’s power. But what happened to Yasuke after this moment is shrouded in uncertainty. Some historians claim he was captured by Oda’s enemies and later released, due to his foreign origins. Others believe he may have become a ronin – a samurai without a master – and possibly even turned to a life at sea as a sailor or pirate.

But Yasuke was not alone in his journey as a foreigner in Japan. The island of Kyushu was home to a significant population of Koreans and Chinese, and many Europeans, Indians, and Africans passed through the country. Their presence is even depicted in the intricate folding screens of the era, which showcase their arrival on large black ships and their integration with the local population. These screens, belonging to the upper classes, were produced in the early 1590s and one of them even portrays a wrestling match between a black man and a Japanese warrior, which is assumed to be Yasuke and Oda. The story of Yasuke remains a fascinating and captivating tale, shrouded in mystery and intrigue.

Despite the limited information available, Yasuke’s story lives on through the accounts of Jesuit sources and The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga by Ota Gyuichi, one of Nobunaga’s administrators, which portrays him as a fascinating and unique individual who captured the imagination of one of Japan’s most powerful leaders, illustrating his curiosity and generosity.

Modern Literary Mentions

Yasuke’s story was largely lost to history for centuries until his reintroduction in the 1960s and 1970s through various literary works. In 1968, Yoshio Kurusu’s children’s book Kurosuke (illustrated by Mita Genjiro) brought him back to the public consciousness, depicting Yasuke as a unique and exotic figure, while also drawing inspiration from contemporary African freedom movements. Kurusu’s depiction of Yasuke’s longing for his homeland evokes a sense of African nationalism, which would have resonated with readers in post-war Japan.

Another important novel about Yasuke is Shusaku Endo’s 1973 Kuronbo, which offers a less sympathetic portrayal of Yasuke, depicting him as a bumbling figure who relies on a girl named Yuki for guidance. The novel’s title is also a Japanese racial slur.

On the other hand, Marc Olden’s 1974 Black Samurai presents a very different image of Yasuke, depicting him as a powerful icon of Black empowerment, who regularly defeats racist white characters in a pulp thriller influenced by the Blaxploitation genre and the Black Power movement.

Regardless of the different interpretations, Yasuke’s story continues to captivate and inspire audiences today, as the first recorded black samurai in history.

Since the 1990s, this captivating figure has also captured the imagination of Japanese popular culture, appearing in anime and video games such as Hyouge Mono and Nioh. But his story doesn’t end there.

In 2019, Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard released their gripping biography, African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, which delves into the fascinating journey of this cosmopolitan man. From his origins in Africa to his possible travels through India and Europe, and finally to East Asia, Yasuke’s story is one of adventure and cultural exchange. Fluent in a dozen languages and versed in heavy artillery tactics, Yasuke is not just a mere curiosity, but a representation of the rich, global tapestry of culture and economy that Japan is deeply ingrained in. A must-read for anyone interested in Japanese and/or Samurai genres.

The Netflix animated series Yasuke not only brings to life the story of the man himself, but also introduces a diverse cast of immigrants living in Japan, including a Jesuit mastermind, a Russian werewolf, and an African sorcerer. The series contrasts this diversity with the contemporary issues of Japanese ethnonationalism, drawing parallels to the racial politics of the United States. The show portrays the controversial decision of the historical figure of Nobunaga to promote Yasuke, which leads to a fascist rebellion, making for a thrilling and thought-provoking storyline. While the story centers around the chosen one, Saki, voiced by Maya Tanida, Yasuke’s character adds a layer of complexity and nuance to the series. The anime’s exploration of Yasuke’s role in his own story is both frustrating and intriguing, as it highlights the difficulty in fitting him into standard narratives of the past or present.

Yasuke’s legacy continues to defy expectations and inspire creators, even centuries after his arrival in Japan.