Like most warriors of their time, Samurai are said to be one of the most enduring symbols of Japan’s cultural heritage. Yet surprisingly, there are foreigners who managed to rise above the ranks to become a samurai, Yasuke is one of them.
Yasuke and he is of African descent, either from Angola or Ethiopia. Though despite this, he was given the distinction of being a samurai by Oda Nobunaga.
Based on another historical data, it states that Yasuke could have also been of Portuguese-Mozambique descent.
Yasuke was brought to Japan by Jesuit missionaries which led the Japanese noblemen to take notice of him. He was said to be born between the years 1555 to 1566, however, this approximate year is not certain.
His name was even doubted whether it was of Japanese origin. There were numerous theories regarding his origin and one of was that he was a European born slave from Portugal.
Yasuke: Life with the Jesuit Missionary
When Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano came to Japan for a mission, he took Yasuke with him as he was an attendant to Alessandro; though some stories did mention that he was a slave.
His dark skinned sparked the interest and curiosity of the native Japanese, so often, the locals often came to the church just to catch a glimpse of him.
This commotion over Yasuke caught the attention of the daimyo during that time, Nobunaga Oda, who requested for an audience with the man.
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African Japanese Connection Of Yasuke
There may have been some historical examples and explanations as to why there was contact between the Japanese and the Africans. And due to his presence, Yasuke became the inspiration of being a brave samurai with a mix of black blood in him.
There is a theory that being dubbed black blood was actually viewed from a different concept in ancient Japanese culture. In their culture, the color black originates from negative things like death, fear and sorrow. However, Yasuke was not the only African Japanese connection present in feudal Japan.
Yasuke: Theories about His Origins
His name suggest that he was a Makua and it was taken from the popular Mozambican name Issufo. Still, various claims state that he belonged to the Yao people or somewhere from the inland area of Mozambique.
During that period, the Yao people were in contact with the Portuguese. This explains why two words form his name: Yao from his people, and -suke which is a form of suffix to form a first name. When put together, the words form Yao-suke.
Other theories include him being a Dinka from South Sudan. He was famous for his height and his dark skin in color. If the theory about him being a Dinka was true, then it simply simply means that Yasuke was a slave when he was a child.
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Fall of the Ashikaga Shogunate
Japan was a war-torn country where each of the clans fought for power and control over the lands. The key was to manipulate the powerless Emperor who runs the court in Kyoto, acting as a figurehead.
However, in the mid-16th century, the continuous civil war neared its end when the Europeans arrived with their guns and cannons.
At some point, Japan was reunified with the help of the three major warlords which included the following: Nobunaga Oda who began the process of reunification, Toyotomi Hideyoshi – Nobunaga’s successor and who aided in solidifying the reunification process, and lastly is Tokugawa Ieyasu who sealed the deal by bringing in unprecedented 250 years of peace.
These were the masters that Yasuke worked for, and each of them had their own varied reactions to the man, being a unique and distinct character.
Serving under Lord Nobunaga
Lord Nobunaga was amazed by Yasuke’s physical assets such as his great height which was over six feet tall. He was extremely tall when compared to the average Japanese man, whose average height was just 5 feet.
To ensure that his skin was of true color, Nobunaga asked him to strip to the waist and also had his body scrubbed to ensure the authenticity of his skin. That time, Yasuke was in perfect health and was said to be handsome. His strength was comparable to that of 10 men.
Eventually, Nobunaga made Yasuke his retainer, bodyguard, and was stationed in Azuchi Castle. With his dominating size and strength, it prevented attempts of assassination towards his lord. He was also considered as part of a collection of Western possessions that his lord boasted of.
Due to his master’s fondness of him, there were rumors that Yasuke would have been endowed the distinction of being a daimyo.
This was one of the highest honors accorded to one who serves his master since a daimyo could own Japanese lands. However, these remained rumors since he was not turned into one, but was given the honor of being made a member of the samurai class. This was unheard and a very rare honor among foreigners.
Azuchi castle is one of the main castles of Oda Nobunaga. It was created from the years 1576 until 1579. The castle is located along the shores of Lake Biwa in the Omi Province.
This castle was specifically built close to Kyoto and served as a watchtower to guard anyone who approaches the capital. This castle was known for being immune to fires and conflict that usually takes place during that time.
Life as a Samurai
Mitsuhide Akechi, one of Nobunaga’s generals, initiated a coup to overthrow his rule. The general stormed towards Honnoji Temple in Kyoto where Nobunaga was staying in during that time. This betrayal caused Nobunaga’s inevitable defeat at the hands of his treacherous general.
There were no confirmed claims about Nobunaga’s death, but some state that instead of being captured, he chose to commit seppuku instead. It was a ritualistic suicide for any samurai who wanted to retain their honor.
Upon Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke escaped towards Azuchi castle. He eventually entered the service of Nobunaga’s son, Oda Nobutada, who was eventually forced to perform seppuku as well.
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Akechi Mitsuhide became a traitor to Nobunaga Oda. Though the reason for this betrayal is still being debated by the Japanese historians.
It is likely that he acted out of fear when he assumed that Nobunaga would hand over his lands to Mori Ranmaru. This was because Nobunaga engaged in ritual homosexual acts which was common between the samurai classes.
At times, this was the reason to be given favors by the lord. Due to this, Nobunaga and his group of followers, including Yasuke, were apprehended.
Soon after, Yasuke was taken as captive by Mitsuhide who was clearly unimpressed with him. In the eyes of Mitsuhide, he was a beast and not considered as a true samurai.
This new lord thought that the Western culture of offering their sword in defeat was a sign of cowardice, unlike the act of seppuku.
This led Yasuke to return to the service of Valignano. Then later, returned to live with the Jesuits. His brothers in the Jesuit missionary were relieved to see him alive.
From Slave into Warrior
After he served his masters in a short period of time, the slave that came from Africa had been ushered into the Japanese warrior class.
This was considered as a unique occurrence that changed the course of Japanese history. His story became the subject of a children’s fictional & historical story known as Kuro suke.
After the change of rulership under the three major leaders of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the last one of them, expelled all Westerners during that time.
The only exception was the small Dutch enclave that was located in Dejima, Nagasaki. Christianity was outlawed due to Tokugawa’s rule until the 19th century.
Yasuke’s life story can be categorized into three different acts. One would be from Michael De Luca, who is the producer of “Yasuke, the Black Samurai”.
He is best known for his skills in capturing the interest of the audience and turning their curiosity or intrigue into real life stories.
Since Yasuke’s life story is unique, there are several interpretations of it. Any movie producer and future movies can have the freedom to go beyond the norm.
They can break tradition based on “cinematic license”, with some exaggerations thrown in. Whether they would stay faithful to his legend or decide to go the opposite direction, they can turn his story into something phenomenal and short of a box office hit.
People who will watch Yasuke in films will learn more about this African-Japanese man who was a slave yet became a warrior worthy of acquiring the title of samurai.
Present generations will find him cool and his adventure out of this world just like heroes in the movies.
Image Source: 都守淳夫『西尾市岩瀬文庫の沿革と目録構造』西尾市教育委員会、1999年 [Public domain]