Yasuke: African Samurai

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Mark Guthrie charts the amazing rise of Yasuke, from slavery to samurai

Despite it being more than 150 years since Japan ended its self-imposed isolation from the world, the country remains a nation of homogeneity. Foreigners make up less than two per cent of residents, with some seventy per cent of those living within the three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama.

This means that even today, for many Japanese, coming across a foreigner in the flesh can be something of a novelty, and curiosity often overrides good manners. Many gaijin [foreigners] find that they are openly gawped at in public, and while there is rarely any malevolence in the attention, it can be a little disconcerting; comparable to possessing the residual fame of a male member of S Club 7, or an X-factor contestant from 2011.

But if today’s gaijin finds this a little unnerving, imagine how it felt for Yasuke, the only black samurai in sixteenth century Japan…

Stranger than strange lands

Like most African slaves of the 1500s, little, if anything, is known of Yasuke’s early life. While it is broadly believed that he originated in Portuguese Mozambique, even his birth name remains unknown, with Yasuke most likely a Japanization of his real or slave name. Furthermore, no contemporary images of him exist.

What we do know, and where the documented story begins, is that Yasuke was ‘taken on’ as a ‘servant’ (sanitising euphemisms abound) by Jesuit missionaries and posted as a page to Alessandro Valignano, Visitor of Missions in the Indies. In 1579 the high-ranking missionary brought him on a Portuguese ship for his first visit to Japan.

For a slave abducted from his African homeland and shipped halfway around the world, Yasuke’s landing in Asia would have no doubt been a dramatic experience for the young man. His reception perhaps even more so.

At this time, most Japanese had never seen a foreigner – even Valignano’s imposing height was said to draw crowds – but the arrival of a man six-foot two-inches tall and black skinned sparked pandemonium in the streets of Kyoto, with locals breaking down the door of the church in which he was residing, several being crushed to death in the clamour, just to catch a glimpse of him.

Becoming Nobunaga’s man

Yasuke’s fame travelled and soon came to the attention of Oda Nobunaga, the powerful warlord who had united Japan in this time of duelling chieftains. Nobunaga is said to have been obsessed by all things western, and is one of the first recorded Japanese to have worn western clothing, used tables and chairs and drunk wine from goblets.

Whether he truly was impressed by the foreigners or this was simply an affectation to ingratiate himself with the Portuguese and their access to superior western weaponry – and there is little more that impresses a warlord than guns – is open to debate. What is not, is that hearing of this famous black man, Nobunaga was immediately intrigued and demanded an audience with Yasuke.

Upon first seeing him, “black as an ox, healthy and good looking, and possessing the strength of ten men” as contemporary witnesses attest, the great daimyo [lord, or general] literally could not believe his eyes, and had him stripped to the waist and scrubbed to see if the ‘ink’ on his skin could be removed. Finally convinced of Yasuke’s natural state, Nobunaga was obviously impressed by his size and strength, but it was the page’s ability to speak Japanese (Valignano was a contentious figure amongst Jesuits, but his insistence on missionaries and servants being skilled the local language brought about one of the great early advancements in the understanding of the Japanese language) that made the greatest impression, enough to insist that Yasuke remained under his command while Valignano returned.

Although Nobunaga, who lived under permanent threat of assassination, understood the importance of Yasuke’s physique when retaining his services, it was not long before he found that it was his new vassal’s intellect that he relied most upon, and the former slave became one of the warlord’s most trusted advisors. As his Japanese fluency improved and Nobunaga turned to him with increasing regularity in battle and military strategy (something that has led to conjecture that Yasuke had been a warrior prior to his enslavement), his reliability was quickly rewarded. Around 1581 he was escalated to the social rank of samurai, the elite of the elite, becoming perhaps the first non-Japanese to be awarded the honour. With this standing came money, property, wives and, the greatest symbol of samurai status: the right to carry two swords.

There were even rumours at the time that he was to be made a daimyo himself, a chief amongst samurai. Whether or not this was in fact Nobunaga’s intention it never came to fruition. In June 1582, catastrophe struck, when Nobunaga was betrayed by his trusted retainer, Akechi Mitsuhide.

The fall of Nobunaga

With Nobunaga’s entourage of just thirty pages (including Yasuke) stopping at Kyoto’s Honno-ji temple to partake in a tea ceremony, Mitsuhide’s army took the opportunity to attack and initiate a coup d’état. Although Yasuke was able to fight his way to safety and escaped to Azuchi castle, Nobunaga was not so lucky. As the temple burned to the ground he committed seppuku [ritual suicide], the standard samurai response to impending defeat, bringing to an end of the Oda clan’s rule over Japan.

With Nobunaga dispatched, Mitsuhide then charged on to Azuchi Castle, and though Yasuke fought valiantly the defenders were overwhelmed. Following the western tradition, Yasuke relinquished his sword to Mitsuhide’s men in defeat. Confused by this seemingly-unusual action, the soldiers deferred to Akechi who asserted that Yasuke was ‘nothing more than a beast’ who could neither be expected to understand nor be worthy of the honour of seppuku. As a result, Yasuke was stripped of his title and returned to the Jesuits.

Yasuke’s legacy

Though we know that the Jesuits were relieved to see Yasuke alive, this is where his story goes cold, and no evidence of what became of him remains. However, his legend lives on in popular culture.

Children’s author Kurusu Yoshio won the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969 with Kuro-suke (‘kuro’ is the Japanese word for ‘black’ and ‘suke’ is a common ending for male names), a story based on Yasuke’s tale. In 1998, manga artist Takashi Okazaki wrote and illustrated the first of his Afro Samurai comics, a manga that was later developed into a video game and anime (the latter of which starred Samuel L Jackson and was soundtracked by Wu Tang Clan’s The RZA) with the eponymous hero based on Yasuke. And in November 2018, Netflix announced plans for a new Yasuke anime set in feudal Japan, but including magic-wielding warriors and robots. 

For me, Yasuke’s legacy isn’t about media spin offs (though I am quite excited by the Netflix anime), but rather his strength, intelligence and the great things people can achieve. Many foreigners living in Japan complain about a glass ceiling, that it is impossible to escape low-paid jobs, or that they will never be truly accepted.

But if Yasuke can climb from slavery to the upper echelons of society, and if a powerful lord of a homogenised society can show acceptance of the unknown, then there is opportunity for us all.

Black Sumo.jpg  by Wikicommons Public Domain

Originally published in NEO Magazine (UK print)

Toyota: The Driving Force Behind Aichi’s Prosperity

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Aichi Prefecture is well known for manufacturing, but there is one company that stands head and shoulders above the rest. The Toyota Motoring Corporation that sprang up from the Aichi city that now bears its name is (by some metrics) the largest automobile producer in the world, and without it, Aichi would most definitely be a very different place.

Toyota: the Beginning

Although Toyota is now known worldwide for its automotive production, the company has its origins in fabric production. After developing looms since the 1890s, inventor and industrialist Sakichi Toyoda invented the Toyoda Type G Automatic Loom in 1924. With this as his centerpiece, Toyoda established Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in 1926.

The company soon grew, and the development of his jidoka principal (autonomous operation), the forerunner of the Toyota Production System, earned him the titles “the King of Japanese Inventors” and “Father of the Japanese Industrial Revolution.”

This expansion saw international acclaim for both the Toyoda principals and its manufacturing, and in 1929 the patent for the Type G Automatic Loom was sold to British company Platt Brothers, generating the starting capital for a movement into a new sector.

Becoming ‘Toyota’

In 1929 Kiichiro Toyoda, son of Sakichi, traveled to Europe and the United States to research automobile production, which he followed up in 1930 with studies into gasoline-powered engines. Around the same time, the Japanese government, due to the demands of war with China, encouraged Toyoda Automatic Loom Works to build automobiles to aid the war effort.

Using the proceeds of the Model G patent sale, Toyoda began developing automobiles in 1933, and two years later the first prototypes; the A1 passenger car and the G1 truck – were manufactured. These were followed in 1935 by Toyoda’s first passenger car, the Model AA, going on sale for a price that undercut Ford and GM by 400 JPY.

The Toyota Motor Company was established as an independent company in 1937, the change of name coming about as the katakana alphabet spelling of Toyota (トヨタ) takes eight strokes to write (as opposed to Toyoda,トヨダ, which takes ten). The significance of this being that the number ‘eight’ is considered lucky in many Asian cultures, as well as having a ‘cleaner’ sound to the Japanese ear. In addition, with the word toyoda literally meaning “fertile rice paddies,” the name change removed the association with traditional agriculture, lending it a bright, new modernity.

Post-War Toyota

During the Pacific war, Toyota almost exclusively manufactured automobiles, trucks in particular, for the Japanese government’s war efforts. As a result, the Toyota factories were scheduled for bombing targets by Allied aerial attacks; however, the war drew to a conclusion before the strikes took place.

While Toyota escaped annihilation at the hands of bombers, the immediate post-war era was a time beset with difficulties for the company. Although at the end of 1945 the U.S. military gave Toyota permission to begin peacetime production, a result of which saw the unveiling of the new, smaller vehicle, the Toyopet model SA, with Japan facing severe financial hardship and the company plagued by regular strikes and union action, Toyota twice flirted with bankruptcy.

As the scapegoat for many of these problems, Kiichiro Toyoda resigned from the company he developed in 1950 and died two years later. He was succeeded by Taizo Ishida, the chief executive of the Toyoda Automatic Loom company, and the company’s fortunes were almost immediately revived as America entered the Korean war and ordered over 5,000 vehicles for their military. Ishida cleverly saw this as an opportunity to invest in manufacturing infrastructure, building a new plant, something that would give them a decisive upper-hand over their primary competitor, Nissan, in the years to come.

Going Global

Toyota eventually branched out into the American market, opening a Hollywood headquarters in 1957. The first Toyotas to go on sale were the Land Cruiser and the Toyopet Crown. Neither, however, made much of an impression on the American people, with the latter singularly unattractive as its name brought to mind associations with pets and toys, a difficult sell in the nation of Cadillacs and Mustangs.

Consequently, the company turned its focus to the creation of a car that was designed especially for the American market, resulting in the introduction of the Avalon and Camry, though the Corona, with its 90 horsepower engine and significant passenger room, was to become the first truly Americanized Toyota. By 1967, Toyota had become an established brand in the U.S.

In the same year as Toyota arrived in the US, divisions in Brazil were opened, followed in the 1960s by research and development facilities in Thailand. In 1963 a plant in Melbourne, Australia built the first Toyota outside of Japan, and for the next two years, Australia was Toyota’s biggest export market. At the same time, importer Erla Auto Import A/S of Denmark struck an agreement to become the distributor for Denmark, Norway, and Sweden with the Netherlands following soon after, establishing Toyota across northern Europe.

Global Leaders

Throughout the 1970s, Toyota went from strength to strength, growing its market share over a broad scope of automotive industries. However, the oil crisis of 1973 saw consumers of the American market turn to more compact, fuel-efficient vehicles, and with Toyota slow to make the change to front-wheel drive automobiles; the Nissan Sunny overtook the Toyota Corolla in the number of cars built. Despite this setback, in the 1980s, the Corolla was one of the best-selling vehicles in the world

1989 saw Toyota move into the luxury car market, with the launch of their Lexus division, followed by full-sized pickups the T100 and the Tundra, SUVs, and upgrades of their sports vehicles.

Modern Toyota

In 2005 Toyota ranked eighth on Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s leading companies and was ranked number one in global automobile sales for the first quarter of 2008. Today, Toyota regularly tops lists of worldwide automobiles produced, and regularly vies with Volkswagon for the title of the most valuable automotive company.

Perhaps the greatest influence that Toyota has had on the modern era of automobiles is the Prius, afull hybrid electric car that first went on sale in Japan in 1997, making it the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle.

Subsequently introduced worldwide in 2000, the Prius is sold in over 90 markets, reached the 1 million vehicle mark in May 2008, and totaled global cumulative sales of 6.1 million units in January 2017.

In November 2015, the company announced that it would invest US$1 billion over the next 5 years into artificial intelligence and robotics research, and is currently one of the leading automotive developers in this area.

Affect on Aichi

Toyota has long been a major influence on Aichi Prefecture. In Japan’s industrial age, Toyoda/Toyota was a key employer in the area, with textile manufacturing in both Nagoya and Komoro. Local legend has it (though little factual corroboration can be found) that the reason for Nagoya being rebuilt with wide, spacious roads following the destruction of the Allied bombings was at the behest of Toyota so that their cars would have more room to be driven.

In 1959, the Aichi city of Komoro, where the primary plant was situated, changed its name to Toyota due to the fame and economic importance of its major employer, fittingly becoming a sister city with Detroit a year later. And Aichi’s large Brazilian contingent owes much to the requirements of the company’s manufacturing plants needing greater numbers of workers during the bubble years.

As a symbol of Japan’s manufacturing prowess, Toyota’s international strength is of great pride to many Japanese, and it started right here, in Aichi.

For Toyota Buffs

If you are at all interested in Toyota, cars, or just local history, check out these great museums and tours:

Toyota Plant And Museum Tour

Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology

Toyota Automobile Museum

Image: by TMWolf via wikicommons. [CC BY-SA 2.0] – modified

Originally produced for H&R Group