History

The African Slave Who Became a Japanese Samurai (A True Story)

How Yasuke transcended cultures across thousands of miles.

Sean Kernan
Sep 29 · 5 min read
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“The only reason a warrior is alive is to fight, and the only reason a warrior fights is to win” — Miyamoto Musashi (Source: publishing rights purchased by the author via istock images)

Yasuke’s life began in the complicated arms of human conflict. It was Mozambique in the mid-1550s. Warring tribes were encroaching upon each other's land in an ongoing struggle for resources and power.¹A byproduct of this fighting was the continuation of a long and tragic chapter of history: the selling of captives into slavery.

Thousands of miles east, Japan was at odds with China during the silk trade, forbidding Chinese merchants from landing on their shores. European traders saw this as an opportunity and began a very lucrative silk business, acting as an intermediary between the two.

Religion would herald a convergence of these two narratives and in turn, a black samurai would emerge.

Freedom was a short tenure

In his early teens, Yasuke was sold to European merchants, marketed on his physical prowess and mental acuity. He landed in servitude of a Jesuit Missionary, Alessandro Valignano, who intended to spread his faith to mainland Japan. Yasuke was to be Valignano’s assistant and bodyguard during this journey.²

They spent several years in southern Japan, where missionaries maintained a foothold. However, their arrival in Kyoto, Japan would create chaos. As Valignano and Yasuke rode into the city with their small caravan, masses of people gathered around, transfixed by Yasuke’s appearance. Many had never seen a man with black skin. Additionally, and because the Buddha is often depicted with dark skin, some saw him as a holy figure.

The commotion in the streets escalated, with people getting injured as they clambered to catch a glimpse of Yasuke and touch him. This unrest eventually reached the regional warlord, Oda Nobunaga, who demanded to meet with Yasuke.

His change in plans began

Upon meeting him, Oda Nobunaga was in awe of Yasuke. In the years since entering slavery, Yasuke had grown into a powerfully built man, who stood roughly 6'2. This was in significant contrast to the average 16th-century Japanese man. Most were slight of build and closer to 5'2. Oda was also caught off guard by Yasuke’s ability to speak Japanese, which he’d learned in his time with the missionaries.

Remarkably, Oda didn’t believe that Yasuke was actually black at first. Believing it was ink, he ordered him to strip to his waist and scrub his skin with a sponge to prove it, which he did. While one would think this experience sowed eternal animosity towards Oda, it would become very much the opposite.

Oda ordered Yasuke be turned over to him. The missionary, Valignano, had zero power in protesting, as Oda was the most powerful warlord in all of Japan. It was at some point during this time that Yasuke actually got the name Yasuke. Prior to this, some historians believe his name was Yasufe, but that hasn’t been confirmed.³

While under Oda’s command, Yasuke was given money, weapons, and training in the way of the samurai. Eventually, after proving remarkably effective with weapons, he was given the title of samurai, which had never been given to a non-Japanese person.

Yasuke then served in Kyoto as Oda Nobunaga’s personal bodyguard and was a formidable opponent. The very things that had drawn him into slavery, his sharp mind and physical ability, had translated well into combat. In turn, he had top-class privileges and was able to dine with Oda’s family and was even treated as fellow kin.

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Art By Anthony Azekwoh Wikimedia Commons

There was combat during his tenure

A terrible civil war was raging in Japan. Feudalism was at a peak, with neighboring states all vying for dominance. The ongoing conflict would become part of Yasuke’s life, as he fought for Oda who, despite being a powerful Daimyo (warlord), struggled to consolidate power in the region. Through all of this, Yasuke was a favorite of Oda, always at his side, and considered a friend, whom he confided in and carried on conversations with.

In Oda, Yasuke found significance and respect, something that had eluded him for so long. And for that, he was ready to lay down his life for the man.

In 1582, both took part in a large invasion in the local mountains, with as many as 40,000 soldiers involved. Yasuke never suffered a major injury, in this battle or others. In fact, he made quick work of those who challenged him and was a feared opponent.

Ultimately, this invasion failed and Oda’s army retreated. Three months later, Oda’s quest to consolidate Japan came crashing down as his allies betrayed him, storming his castle. Yasuke would fight until the end, brawling outside of Oda’s chambers, cutting down enemies. But he was unable to save his warlord. Oda would commit ritual suicide, Sepukku, to avoid losing his honor.

Yasuke was taken captive but only temporarily. His captors didn’t have a use for him and saw him as alien from the culture. Additionally, he was a ronin (masterless samurai), so they released him.

His last chapter was quieter

From here, Yasuke returned to the church of his original missionaries. Little is known about the remainder of his life, as he was no longer tracked by Japanese scholars. It is presumed that his life was much calmer, avoiding the ongoing warfare that permeated the region.

Feudal Japan evokes beautiful imagery of rising mountains, curving architecture, and grand battles. It’s incredible to imagine that among their ranks, an African slave thrived, earning respect as a warrior, living free in a land that couldn’t have felt further from home.

He was the first non-Japanese samurai and a very competent one at that. If ever there was a truth about Yasuke, like the generations of subjugated Africans before and after him, he was a survivor.

Sources

[1] Girard, Geoffrey (2013) African Samurai: The True Story of a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan

[2] McLaren, Walter Wallace (2013) Political History of Japan During the Meiji Era

[3] Cooper, Michael (1965) They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan

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