The Legend of Yasuke

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Screenshot of Yasuke from the trailer of the anime, Yasuke

The man known as Yasuke has been getting a lot of attention in pop culture as of late. The legendary African samurai served as the inspiration for Afro Samurai starring Samuel L. Jackson. He has made an appearance in the video game Nioh. Chadwick Boseman, the star of Marvel’s Black Panther, was set to portray Yasuke in an upcoming film being produced by Lionsgate, however, since his passing on August 28, 2020, it is unclear if this film will be produced. Now with the Yasuke anime coming to Netflix on April 29, 2021, I thought now would be the perfect time to re-examine the man known as the African samurai. There is so little we actual know about him and it is getting harder to separate fact from fiction. In this article, we will look at the picture that is painted about Yasuke today, then look at what evidence we actually have to produce a clearer picture of the man who has gained so much fame in the past couple of years.

The Life of Yasuke (As Told Today)

A statue of Yasuke

Yasuke was born in approximately 1555 and was most likely from Mozambique. While it is not his confirmed place of birth, historians have made a good case for the country to be his birthplace, however, others have stated that he could also be from Ethiopia or South Sudan.(1) He was a victim of the Arab slave trade and was most likely sold to the Portuguese in Mozambique. He was then probably transported from Africa to the Far East as human cargo. Records are unclear as to when, but he became a bodyguard for Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit who was given the title Visitor of Missions in the Indies by Pope Gregory XIII in 1573.(2) He arrived in Japan with Valignano in 1579, starting in the southern island of Kyūshū and finally making their way to the capital in the spring of 1581.

In April 1581, Oda Nobunaga granted Valignano an audience with him and brought Yasuke with him. It is not clear on how, when or why, but not long after their visit with Nobunaga, Yasuke would be placed under Nobunaga’s care. During their meeting, it has been recorded that Nobunaga ordered Yasuke to strip to his waist and be scrubbed to make sure his color was genuine.(3) Nobunaga was impressed when Yasuke’s skin did not change, and Nobunaga became fascinated with the foreigner. At some point, he was made a samurai.

Apparently, he was at the Battle of Tenmokuzan and was even at Honnōji the fateful night of June 21, 1582. He also somehow managed to get to Nijō Castle and fought alongside Oda Nobutada before Nobutada committed seppuku. It is from here that things become hazy. It is known that he was captured by Mitsuhide’s men and was given back to the Jesuits in Kyōto but from there, Yasuke is never mentioned in history again. It is unsure if he remained in Japan or not after Honnōji and some list his year of death as 1590, but that is just as much of a guess as the year of his birth.

Accounts for Yasuke

Considering the length of the Wikipedia article written about Yasuke, you would think that we would have more on him than we do. After all, if he was a samurai like the sources say, we should have a lot on him, right? Unfortunately, no.

English sources on this era are limited. Any who have began collecting books on the subject will probably notice that about ninety-nine precent of what is out there is written by Stephen Turnbull. Then there are some books that may have just a chapter dedicated to the events of the Sengoku Jidai and only a handful of biographies on the Three Unifiers exist in English. Unless you are able to read any Japanese, there is very little for you to use for research. Sadly, the lack of English sources applies to Yasuke.

The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga by Ōta Gyūichi (2011)

This book is groundbreaking for anyone wanting to study Oda Nobunaga. This is a translated version of the Shinchō kōki written by Ōta Gyūichi, a primary source that was sixteen volumes long and covered everything from 1568 to Nobunaga’s death in 1582. It can be confusing to follow at times, but it is a great account of Nobunaga’s life. In regards to Yasuke, this is all that can be found:

On the 23rd of the Second Month, a blackamoor came from the Kirishitan Country. He appeared to be twenty-six or twenty-seven years old. Black all over his whole body, just like an ox, this man looked robust and had a good demeanor. What is more, his formidable strength surpassed that of ten men. The Bateren brought him along by way of paying his respects to Nobunaga. Indeed, it was owing to Nobunaga’s power and his glory that yet unheard-of treasures from the Three Countries and curiosities of this kind came to be seen here time and time again, a blessing indeed.”(4)

This is the only time in the official records of Oda Nobunaga that he is mentioned and he is not even mentioned by name. The name “Yasuke” alone does not even appear in the index. The only times the name “Yasuke” appears in the book is when talking about a casualty list, both men having different family names, just same given name.

They Came to Japan An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 edited by Michael Cooper (1995)

Despite being over twenty-five years old, this anthology put together by the Center for Japanese Studies by the University of Michigan is quite impressive. Focusing more on an outsiders’ perspective of Japan during this era and the early days of the Edo Period, the works are all written by the missionaries, and others like William Adams, and give modern historians an idea on how life was like during the Sengoku Jidai. Surely Yasuke would get a mention here…sadly, we get a small account about how the Japanese were extremely intrigued by Africans and a small footnote about an African who happened to come through Kyōto in April.

[Luis] Froís, writing on April 14, 1581, relates how the inquisitive populace of Miyako [Kyōto] broke down the door of the Jesuit residence in their eagerness to inspect a negro slave and several were injured in the ensuing brawl. So great was their desire to see him that it was alleged that he could have earned at least 10,000 cruzados in a very short time if put on exhibition. All this aroused the curiosity of Nobunaga who summoned the man into his presence. He was so intrigued by the dusky fellow that he made him strip to the waist to satisfy himself that his colour was genuine. The ruler thereupon called his children to witness this extraordinary spectacle and one of his nephews gave the man a sum of money.”(5)

Yasuke is never mentioned by name here as well, although considering the time this occurred, it has been attributed to being Yasuke and his meeting with Nobunaga.

Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan by Danny Chaplin (2018)

Now we are beginning to see Yasuke get mentioned in books about the Sengoku Jidai. For some reason, a lot of history buffs on Japanese history tend to ignore this book, claiming it brings nothing new to the table. Honestly, I disagree, but that is for a review for another day. This book goes through the entirety of the Three Unifiers era of the Sengoku Jidai while providing a lot of detail along the way. It is a tome of a book, with a total of 618 pages, full of footnotes and great resources. While Yasuke is only mentioned towards the end of the age of Nobunaga, we are given a name and more details about the man.

Another member of [Nobunaga’s] entourage whom we have not yet spoken of up until now was Nobunaga’s remarkable 6’ 2” coloured page, attired somewhat incongruously in full samurai armour, whose name was Yasuke.”(6)

Interesting…a page, not a samurai. The rest goes on to talk about what we have established already, that he was most likely from Mozambique, that he came to Japan with Alessandro Valignano in 1579, and caused quite a stir when he arrived in Kyōto. Everything is consistent until we get further down the page.

Entranced by the first negro whom he had ever seen, Nobunaga instantly took the man into his service. He even made him a samurai and gave him a Japanese name, ‘Yasuke’.”(7)

Which one is he? Is Yasuke a page or a samurai? The author does not seem he can really give readers a clarification. There is a huge difference between being a samurai and being a page.

Yasuke is further talked about towards the end of the chapter on the Honnōji Incident:

Fighting alongside Nobutada was Nobunaga’s coloured page Yasuke. The negro samurai fought like a lion but when his Japanese comrades were overrun he surrendered his sword to Akechi’s men. They approached Akechi asking what to do with him, to which the rebel general replied that the man was ‘a beast who was undeserving of the rank of samurai’ but that he ought therefore not be killed. In all likelihood, Akechi may have pitied the man’s predicament and sought to spare the coloured man’s life by insulting him in this way. Yasuke was sent to Kyōto’s Nanbanji or ‘southern barbarian temple’, where he was returned to the custody of the Jesuits who had first brought him to Japan.”(8)

I feel like because the word ‘samurai’ means ‘to serve’(in short, at least), it has become interchangeable with other words like servant or page, especially in this book. While the book does give us some more information on Yasuke, it is hard to figure out if he was a page or a samurai.

African Samurai The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan by Thomas Lockley & Geoffrey Girard (2019)

I will cover this book in more detail with a review on it in the coming months, but this book basically covers Yasuke’s time in Japan. Unfortunately, it reads more like a work of historical fiction at times and due to the lack of information we have on him personally, the rest of the book is filled with information about life in Japan during this era, the Europeans and their interactions with the Japanese, and will talk about other famous figures in Japanese history. Despite this, the book follows the belief that Yasuke was a samurai who fought for Nobunaga in the last few months of his life. The question still remains: was Yasuke a samurai or not?

Page or Samurai?

Another screenshot from the Yasuke trailer of the African samurai.

The word “legend” means “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated”.(9) I believe this applies to Yasuke. We have very little evidence to support any claims of him being a page or a samurai. In fact, it seems that the belief that Yasuke was a samurai comes from a children’s book called Kuro-suke. Published in 1968, the children’s book tells the story of Yasuke’s life and ends after the death of Nobunaga, where Yasuke finds himself at a temple, dreams of his parents in Africa and weeps.(10) This story slowly evolved into becoming fact when there is little to prove otherwise.

I am not saying that Yasuke was not a samurai. I do believe that Nobunaga would have made use of this man’s incredible strength and size, due to his extreme fascination with the foreigners, their customs and technologies. It is unclear from records from this era and even by historians today how Yasuke stands in the pages of history. It is because of this that I cannot say for sure.

Final Thoughts

Whether you believe that Yasuke was merely another servant to another man, or if he served alongside him as an equal, Yasuke’s story is still extremely profound. Only a few foreigners get noticed by the most powerful men in Japan, and Yasuke was noticed. He has the distinct honor of serving Oda Nobunaga, the only foreigner to do so, regardless of his status. Until more records are brought to light, we may never know Yasuke’s true story, and until that day comes, he will always remain being Japan’s only African samurai.

Sources

  1. “Yasuke” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasuke#CITEREFLockley2017, last visited 4/19/2021
  2. “Alessandro Valignano” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alessandro_Valignano, last visited 4/19/2021
  3. “Yasuke” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasuke#CITEREFLockley2017, last visited 4/19/2021
  4. Ōta, Gyūichi. The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga (2011), pp. 385-386
  5. Cooper, Michael (edit.). They Came to Japan An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 (1995), p. 71
  6. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 277, emphasis by author of article.
  7. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 277, emphasis by author of article.
  8. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 280, emphasis by author of article.
  9. Google Search, “definition of legend”, answer from Oxford Languages, searched 4/20/2021
  10. “Yasuke: The mysterious Africa samurai” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48542673, last visited 4/20/2021