Yasuke: African Samurai

Black Sumo.jpg

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)