Culture

Japan’s First Non-Japanese Samurai was Black

Yasuke is hailed as Japan’s first ever non-japanese samurai. The warrior, who was black, is one of Nobunaga’s finest warrior during the 14th Century.

JAPAN – The popular Japanese anime Afro Samurai features as its protagonist a black samurai, Afro, a seemingly cold blooded killer who secretly hides a tender soul beneath his facade. During the olden days in Japan, the honour of being a samurai is conventionally bestowed only on Japanese warriors who were bold and worthy of that honour.

However, it has been discovered that during the 14th Century in Nobunaga, there once lived a fearless samurai, who like Afro, defied traditional notions of a Japanese Samurai. Yasuke, the first non-japanese samurai, was black, just like Afro.

The tale of Yasuke, the first black samurai, first came to light in François Solier’s “Histoire Ecclesiatique Des Isles Et Royaumes Du Japon”. The book was written in 1627, and at that time, Solier was a member of the Society of Jesus. His book was a record of Jesuit mission, but also drew attention to the early emergence of Christian-Muslim Relations in Japan during the 1600s.

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Although Solier claims that Yasuke was a Muslim who originated from Mozambique, that claim has since been contested by other researchers. A few theories speculated that Yasuke might be from Portugal, Angola or Ethiopia. There have also been claims that Yasuke was once an African mercenary or a high-ranking Indian. Most recently, it has also been suggested by a TV programme that Yasuke was a Makua named Yasufe, but no concrete evidence has been produced to prove that theory.

According to Solier, Yasuke first arrived in Japan in 1579, and was estimated to be around 24 or 25 years old. Yasuke was the servant of an Italian Jesuit, Alessandro Valignano. Valignano had been appointed by the Jesuit missions as the Visitor (inspector) in the Indies (East Africa, South and East Asia), with Yasuke as his servant and companion. Valignano and Yasuke arrived in the capital in March 1581.

However, their arrival caused a huge upheaval. Yasuke was one of the first Africans to arrive in Kyoto. The locals, in their excitement to see Yasuke, caused a commotion that eventually lead to a stampede in which several people were killed. Thankfully, Valignano and Yasuke remained unharmed.

It was then that Oda Nobunaga, a warlord who happened to be at a nearby temple, noticed Yasuke. Curious to know more about the black man, he sent Yasuke an invitation. During their initial meeting, Nobunaga was incredibly skeptical about Yasuke’s skin tone. He believed that Yasuke’s dark skin tone was so because he covered himself with black ink. Nobunaga ordered Yasuke to strip off his clothes and attempted to scrub off the black ink on his skin.

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When Nobunaga finally realised that Yasuke’s skin was indeed black, he finally gave up. Over time, Nobunaga grow incredibly fond of Yasuke. Yasuke was said to be healthy, reasonably pleasant looking, and possessed a likeable disposition. He was” also relatively tall, and records have shown that a diarist recorded Yasuke’s height as “six shaku 2 sun” (188cm), which would have allowed him to tower over most Japanese.

Eventually, Yasuke ended up under Nobunaga’s service and slowly earned his respect on the battlefield. Yasuke rose from being a lowly page to a Japanese warrior in less than a year, and was ennobled in May 1581. Yasuke accompanied Nobunaga to his castle at Azuchi, and after being honoured, he was then conferred the name Yasuke.

Yasuke also presumably could speak Japanese, since it is reported that Nobunaga especially enjoyed talking with him. Yasuke was greatly favoured by Nobunaga and as he rose rapidly in status, he was earned privileges, such as his own residence, and was later given a ceremonial katana. He even had the pleasure of dining with Nobunaga, a privilege granted only to selected few samurais.

Yasuke’s donning of a kabuto will forever go down in history – as history’s only African samurai. Being able to claim the title of a samurai is no mean feat, and the samurai is emblematic of honour that Japanese culture laud above all else. Much later on, Yasuke also had the privilege of being assigned the duty of weapon bearer, a reflection of Nobunaga’s high esteem and respect for him.

It is also assumed that Yasuke was the only non-japanese “warrior” in Nobunaga’s group.

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Not long after achieving samurai status, Nobunaga’s castle was attacked. In June 1582, Akechi Mitsuhide’s army attacked Honnō-ji, Kyoto. Yasuke fought hard to against the Akechi forces to defend Nobunaga’s castle, but in the end, Nobunaga finally committed the Japanese ritual suicide called seppuku.

After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined Nobunaga’s heir Oda Nobutada. After his father’s death, Nobutada rallied the Oda forces at Nijō Castle. Yasuke continued fighting loyally for Nobutada until he was forced to surrender his sword to Akechi men.

Yasuke however, was spared by Akechi, who instead, sent him to a European Jesuit church, saying that “the black man was a beast and did not know anything.”

It is notable that in Japan, Black people were more often than not, admired rather than discriminated against. Many believed that it was because in Japanese temples, Buddha was often portrayed in black.

No one knows what happened to Yasuke thereafter, but the tale of Japan’s first black samurai continues to be retold until today. The tale of Yasuke’s bravery now lives on in Japanese folklore, and it is his sacrifice and tenacity that make him a true samurai warrior.

Yasuke now plays the hero of Kuro-suke, a children’s historical fiction book. With the recent rise of cross-culture films, perhaps one day the tale of Yasuke might be portrayed on the big screen.

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