The First Black Samurai

A mysterious visitor arrived in Japan in 1579. What made him mysterious was that he was from Africa, and he was called Yasuke. Very much of his story still remains a mystery to this day, and there are only verifiable records up to the date of 1582. 

Yasuke in Samurai Armor with Swords

What made Yasuke unique?

He was the only black Samurai to serve a feudal lord. Oda Nobunaga was one of the most important unifiers of the country and was considered revolutionary for using the services of a black immigrant Samurai. 

Who was Yasuke?

Yasuke was a traveling companion and bodyguard to an Italian Jesuit named Allessandro Valignano. A Jesuit is like a traditional priest. They had traveled by the way of India.

It was in 1581 that they traveled to the capital city of Kyoto to meet with Nobunaga, and request permission to leave Japan, now that their work had finished. This is the trip the Nobunaga and Yasuke first crossed paths on.

Has Yasuke played a role in popular culture?

He was written about and published in the children’s book Kuro-suke, by author Kurushu Yoshio in 1968. Recently it was announced in 2019 before Chadwick Boseman’s Death, that he would play Yasuke in a film based on the story of the mysterious warrior. How great would that have been? Would have been an international classic. 

In 2017 Yasuke showed up as a character in the game Nioh, which you could play. Refreshing for the makers to feature an inclusive playable character. There is also just very recently started a series on Netflix that tells Yasuke’s story in anime form. The story combines much of the factual records that are around him and some licensed fiction. It is an up to date, yet retro take on the warrior’s life, including magical beasts, and giant robots. A world where supernatural powers are rife. But there are some easter eggs for the expert eye, actual events recorded from the African Samurai’s life you will love to be part of.

How historically accurate is the Yasuke anime on Netflix?

There is a scene in the anime where the first meeting of Nobunaga takes place, and what must have been bewilderment at the time, he asks for Yasuke’s skin to be cleaned, thinking it’s dirt. Finally responding when that doesn’t work with “Did you ink you’re skin black?”

Thomas Lockley, the author of the book, African Samurai: The true story of Yasuke, commented about what really happened at the time, saying he was brought in front of the Samurai Lord, who didn’t believe the color of his skin. With Yasuke having to explain he was born with this skin.

Finally, Nobunaga didn’t care and threw a party for the man in court to welcome him. It was later he was given warrior status and believed to be the first foreigner to be bestowed this honor.

How long did Yasuke remain a Samurai?

Yasuke looked like a great warrior standing over six feet tall and is described as having the strength of many men. Because Yasuke was a weapons bearer, it was an easy chance to turn that skill to the service of the Lord, by being called a Samurai, as this was the right of anyone who took up weapons to support the lord, against nasty ninja’s, or other power-hungry Lords.

Nobunaga never employed another black Samurai, and Yasuke was in service only for a few years with him. On the route to a battle in 1582, the Lord and 30 men including Yasuke were ambushed while were performing spiritual duties at the Honno-Ji temple. This even became recorded as the Honno-Ji Incident.

The opposing Lord, Akechi, who was heading to the same battle instead turned around and attacked Nobunaga. What do you think when the opposing clan comes along with 13,000 men when you have only 30? Well, they got slaughtered. But before the Feudal Lords’ life was ended, he committed seppuku. This is a form of face-saving suicide where you slice your abdomen open and enjoy your guts spilling out, however, to make things a bit more life-enhancing for your final moment, there is always a designated second, called a kaishakunin, who beheads you straight after you cut yourself.

Symbolically whoever had control of the head would be able to yield more power, and Yasuke, being the loyal Samurai he was, managed to escape with it, and make a connection back to Nobunaga’s son, Nobutada, to continue to take up arms with the clan. They went back to the battle, this time with 300 men. The same outcome, but this time Yasuke was injured on the battlefield, and the last record made about him was Yasuke’s troops leading him away to a Jesuit mission house.

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