Other Known Names: Unknown
Yasuke was a samurai under Oda Nobunaga during the last year of his life and was the only known African to hold the title of “samurai” in Japan. Information about Yasuke is scarce, however, there is enough to confirm his existence and time in Japan.
Yasuke was born in approximately 1555, near Zanzibar in Africa. While it is not his confirmed place of birth, this is the place that most historians go with. He was a victim of the Arab slave trade and was sold to the Portuguese in Mozambique. He was then transported from Africa to the Far East as human cargo. Records are unclear as to when, but it is known that 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. He arrived in Japan with Valignano in 1579, starting with the southern island of Kyūshū and finally making their way to the capital in the spring of 1581.
On April 6, 1581, Oda Nobunaga granted Valignano and audience with him and brought Yasuke with him. It is not clear for the how and why, but by the end of their visit, Yasuke was in Nobunaga’s custody. The Japanese who lived on the main island away from the usual spots for foreigners, which usually ended up in the south, they had a hard time believing that the color of Yasuke’s skin was actually black. Nobunaga ordered Yasuke to strip to his waist and was scrubbed down to see if his color was permanent. When it was found to be true, Nobunaga proceeded to have Yasuke be by his side to talk to about the African’s childhood, homeland, the journey to Japan, and even a sparring partner. Yasuke knew Japanese and was able to converse with Nobunaga and other Japanese around him. Nobunaga later made Yasuke a samurai.
A year later, Yasuke fought at the Battle of Tenmokuzan under the Oda banner as a samurai. Recent sources have stated that he was present at the Honnōji Incident, when Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed Oda Nobunaga while he was staying at the Honnōji Temple on the night and morning hours of June 21, 1582. In the book African Samurai by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard, they bring up a possible theory on how Yasuke managed to survive. They state that he, along with Mori Ranmaru, Nobunaga’s page who he had a homosexual relationship with*, witnessed Nobunaga commit seppuku, with Ranmaru as his second. Nobunaga’s last order to Yasuke was to bring his head and his sword to his oldest son, Oda Nobutada, who was staying near Nijō Castle. Yasuke served as Ranmaru’s second during his seppuku, and Yasuke managed to get to Nobutada. The victory was short lived, as the Akechi forces surrounded the castle and Nobutada committed seppuku.
Yasuke fades into history after Honnōji. It is known that he was captured by Mitsuhide’s men, and he was released back into Jesuit custody in Kyōto. It is unclear if Yasuke remained in Japan after this. Most list his year of death as 1590, but even that is just as much of a guess as his year of birth. This does not mean his has faded into the pages of history entirely.
Yasuke has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. In February 2017, Yasuke became a character in the popular PlayStation 4 game Nioh. Also, in 2017, Lionsgate announced that a film was in the works on the life of Yasuke. The last information heard about this was that Chadwick Boseman, the star of Marvel’s Black Panther, will star as Yasuke. No date has been set for release yet. There is also an anime coming to Netflix either in 2020 or 2021 called Yasuke. From the description of the show, it implies that it takes place after the death of Oda Nobunaga, and he has since retired. He is tasked with transporting a child who has dark spirits haunting it and wishing it dead. The most famous anime that tips its hat to Yasuke is Afro Samurai. The main character, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, was inspired by Yasuke.
While there is a lot of speculation about his life, from his birthplace and to his death, Yasuke’s story continues to inspire people. Hopefully, with this new interest into the life of Japan’s only African samurai, we will be able to learn more about Yasuke.
*Note: While Mori Ranmaru had an intimate relationship, the homosexual aspects could just be folklore from the Edo period. It is commonly believed now that the relationship between the two was that of a sexual nature.