Yasuke: The African Samurai in Japan

Yasuke: The African Samurai in Japan

Yasuke: The African Samurai in Japan

The story of Yasuke, a black slave who rosed above all odds to the rank of a samurai in Japan, is not a fairytale. This tale of pure heroics and bravery is a real-life story that has remained in the annals of history. Just like other great tales like the tales of great kings, knights, and warriors, this story will forever be told even to generations yet unborn.

Some historians believe that the name Yasuke was said to have originated from the Hebrew name called Issac. Yasuke was thought to be a staunch follower of the Jaang tribe, also called Dinka. Dinka is a region of what is known today as South Sudan. 

According to an investigation in 2013 by Discovery of world’s mysteries, the tv program suggested that Yasuke was initially named as Yasufe, and he was from the Makua tribe. The name Yasufe is said to be a derivation from Mozambique, which translates as Issufo. However, this assertion was not generally accepted by journalists and historians who believe that there was no substantial contact between the Makuas and the outside world as at that time. The first recorded contact between the Makua’s and the outside world was in 1857 when the Portuguese visited Mozambique  

When Yasuke was only a boy, he was a victim of trafficking and slave trade. The young Yasuke was moved to India. At that time, Alessandro Valignano, who was the then Jesuit in the whole of Asia, was carrying out an inspection in the Indies. Valingnano spotted the young Yasuke and took a liking for the poor slave boy. He bought Yasuki and made him part of his entourage as a Valet and personal bodyguard. Alexandro Valingnano traveled with his valet to the home of Asia’s most successful mission, Japan. Yasuke and his master arrived on the shores of Japan in the year 1579, where a new and promising future awaited him. 

Alessandro Valignano

 -Alessandro Valignano

When Yasuke arrived in Kyoto, the then capital, it was said that many people trooped to the streets to catch a glimpse of this well-built man. Historians described him as a man with an intimidating appearance. He was about 6feet and 2 inches tall, and he had a charcoal-like skin which made him very different. His height was intimidating because the height of an average Japanese was around 5feet and 2 inches. There were stories of how some people were crushed to death because of the scramble to see the African. In 1581 precisely, Alexandro and his entourage journey through Sakai, a port city. His party was greeted with a huge crowd who all wanted to see Yasuke. Many people were trampled upon. Buildings collapsed due to the weight of people scrambling to see the African slave with a domineering appearance.

Yasuke rode on a horse as he passed through the waiting crowd. The people were surprised to see a man of such appearance. He was very different from the rest of them in terms of color and appearance. To most Japanese at that time, Yasuke was described as a giant because he had a height of 188cm far more than their average height.

Yasuke was not just different in height and appearance. He was also very muscular and well built. His strength can be compared to those of 10 men put together. He was indeed a born warrior, a hulk, and a samurai in waiting. One other feature that made Yasuke stand out was his level of intelligence. His mastery of the Japanese language in such a short time was a marvel to many. He was able to learn the culture and tradition of the people who drew him closer to the people. Yasuke was a handsome man with a well-crafted body and muscles, giving him an awkward look. 

Yasuke was a fast learner; he adapted quickly to the ways of the Japanese and spoke the language fluently. He was treated like a demi-god and was worshipped by some. One primary reason why Yasuke was revered was because of his black skin. Buddha was often portrayed in black skin, and thus he was likened to a divine being. Yasuke repeated his glorious entrance when he rode to Kyoto. This time around, the African was greeted by a much larger crowd spanning over thousands. He had to take shelter at a church in Jesuit, but the mob still trooped to where he was and demanded that they should be allowed to see him. They even had to break down the doors. Many people were also crushed to death in the ensuing stampede. 

In the nearby temple, one of the most powerful and revered warlords in the whole of Japan by the name Oda Nobunaga was presiding over a court in the temple of Honno-Ji. The great warrior was furious by the uproar caused by the crowd and insisted on finding out the reason for the disruption of peace. He commanded that an audience be arranged between him and Yasuke when he got to find out that Yasuke was the cause of the disturbance around his temple. 

-Oda Nobunaga

Yasuke was already vast in the culture and language of the Japanese. He was able to have a conversation with the Japanese warlord fluently. Nobunaga was fascinated by the black skin of the African. Oda Nobunaga instructed Yasuke to strip from his head down to his waist. He had to discover for himself if Yasuke's black skin was real. He made sure that Yasuke's body was thoroughly scrubbed to see if the black would watch away. He was, however, more astonished to discover that Yasuke was a real black man.

The delighted and astonished warlord ordered for a party to be thrown in honor of the African. The warlord gave Yasuke gifts and cash, which made the African instantly wealthy. 

After a few days, Valignano was asked by Nobunaga if Yasuke can be deployed into his service.

Yasuke was taken in by the warlord to become his weapon bearer. To be a weapon bearer to the most powerful warlord in the whole of Japan was a great privilege and honor. The weapon bearer must also be one who can be trusted with secrets, especially those relating to affairs outside the state. Yasuke’s hard work and diligence paid off, and within a few months, he was rewarded with a home in Azuchi Castle, which was located in the north-eastern province of Kyoto. Yasuke also received a stipend and was gifted with a Katana sword. History has it that the Katana sword is regarded as the symbol of a samurai warrior. Historians believe that Yasuke became the first Samurai of a non-japanese heritage.

Yasuke was regarded as a giant because of his height and revered because of his black skin. He was the first African man to be seen by the locals, hence the astonishment in their hearts. He was decorated as a samurai. History has it that Yasuke had joined Nobunaga on the battlefield. They joined forces together to conquer territories located in the northern region of Mount Fuji, which was controlled by the Takeda clan. Takeda was a mortal enemy to the Oda’s clan. Records of Yasuke’s presence was documented by a diarist from Japan who sited the African on the southern part of Japan’s holy mountain while he was returning to Azuchi. 

June 1582 witnessed a fierce battle led by Nobunaga against the Mori clan, who were long-time enemies to the warlord. Nobunaga had a large army who were on the ground to go into battle with him. He rode ahead of the army with Yasuke and 29 other trusted men. The crew rested at the temple of Honno-Ji, which was the place of the first meeting between Yasuke and Nobunaga fifteen months from then. Nobunaga and his men were ambushed and attacked by over 13,000 strong men of Akechi Mitsuhide’s Army in the hours before the break of dawn. Akechi Mitsuhide was a trusted general in Nobunaga’s army before breaking rank to become a sworn enemy. Those who stood to defend Nobunaga were shot dead while those who survived were killed by hand.

As the battle became fierce, the temple of Honno-Ji was up in flames. As the fire grew more and more intense, Nobunaga carried out a ritual suicide, also known as seppuku. Legend has it that Nobunaga made the last wish to Yasuke, instructing him to do all he can to prevent his enemy from having his head. Yasuke was said to have fled to meet Oda Nobutada, who was appointed as the Clan's new head after the death of his father, Nobunaga. Nobutada had only 200 men in his army, and Akechi Mitsuhide’s men quickly slew them. Nobutada was, however, compelled to commit suicide. Yasuke was captured and made to stand before Akechi, who spared his life and commanded that he be returned to Jesuits.

The above historical event was the last time Yasuke was mentioned in historical records. There had been other records where men with black skin were sited in Japan, but none could tell for sure if any of those men could be Yasuke. There is historical evidence suggesting Yasuke’s remembrance in Japan, where his exploits were celebrated for a century. The true story of the African Samurai was soon to be forgotten. The legend was no more, and his exploits had ceased to be remembered. 

But in the wake of modern times, the Legend of Yasuke has been reawakened in the minds of lovers of history. Yasuke, the African Samurai, is now remembered and celebrated. Many computer games and comic books are making use of his character to immortalize his strength and his name. He was a man of intelligence and great strength. He was said to have the combined power of ten men put together. He was adored and revered by people. Yasuke was a lover of the Japanese culture little wonder he took no time in adjusting to his new environment and lifestyle.

Several books have been written about the first Samurai of non-Japanese descent. Lots of documentaries and short films have been produced to remember the African Samurai. There have also been theatre plays to depict his character.

Yasuke, the African Samurai, will never be forgotten for his loyalty to his master Nobunaga. He was put his life on the line for the warlord. Nobunaga was a man of vision. He had a humble birth in the south of Sudan, but events and happenings quickly turned the young African boy into a legend. A sword-bearer and a samurai. He held the Katana sword with such swiftness and finesse, which is deserving of the honor bestowed on him.

Since the later end of the 20th century, Japanese manga and TV dramas have produced a series of plays about the great Yasuke.


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