Yasuke Was the Black Samurai of 16th Century Japan

There are some stories that jump out of history and become the stuff of legend. Joan of Arc. Genghis Khan. Crazy Horse. But there's something extra special about those people who rose from slavery to some of the highest positions available. One of the most incredible examples of this story is well-known in the country where it happened but is only just now getting spread around the world. Meet Yasuke, the black samurai of the 16th century.

Coming to Japan

The 1500s were not a good time to be an African in the company of Europeans — especially if those Europeans were Portuguese. Portugal ramped up the slave trade earlier than most and brought enslaved Africans with them as they traveled all over the world. So when we read stories from that era of Jesuit missionaries with African servants in Japan, it's probably safe to assume that "servant" is a euphemism. That's how the man who would become known as "Yasuke" first stepped onto the stage of history: a black man far from home, working for a missionary named Alessandro Valignano.

"No Man's Land IV (2015)" created by Nicola Roos.

Yasuke was likely originally from Portuguese Mozambique, though other accounts claim he may have come from the Congo. His birth name was lost to history, but it's generally believed that "Yasuke" was how it was rendered in Japanese. In any case, he was clearly a physically imposing figure to both the Portuguese and the Japanese. At 6 feet, 2 inches (nearly 2 meters) tall, he was head and shoulders above the average Japanese person. So it's not surprising that he caught the attention of the daimyō ("great lord") Oda Nobunaga — according to some accounts, this happened when several people were crushed in an attempt to get a close look at him.

Now, Oda was not just another feudal lord. Through his conquest, he ended several centuries of civil war in Japan and set the foundation for the unified country to come. Whether by purchase, request, or sheer intimidation, he convinced Valignano to leave Yasuke in his company as a free man and a warrior. Within a year of entering Oda's service, Yasuke was granted the status of samurai, an honor generally restricted to those who inherited it. As he became fluent in Japanese, Yasuke became one of the lord's most trusted advisors.

Oda Nobunaga

Betrayed and Banished

Oda was a master strategist both politically and at war, but he wasn't well-liked among the nobles he unified through conquest (go figure). Maybe it was because he abolished toll roads, which would have given noble houses the funds to fight against him, or maybe it was his (purely political) acceptance of Christian missionaries in the country, whom he believed would lessen the power of the Buddhist church. In any case, in 1582, he was betrayed by a vassal named Akechi Mitsuhide, and the daimyō committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after being routed on the battlefield.

This was obviously bad news for Yasuke, whose acceptance in Japanese culture was largely dependent on the favor of the powerful warlord. Though he put up a fight, he eventually surrendered his sword to Akechi, who decided that the only place for him was the Temple of the Southern Barbarians — that is, returning him to the Jesuits. And that's the last confirmed reference to Yasuke in the history books.

In recent years, Yasuke has started popping up more frequently in both Japanese and Western pop culture, however. "Afro Samurai," a manga loosely based on his story, gained critical acclaim in Japan in 1999 and 2000, and in 2007, it was adapted into a similarly popular anime. And in May 2017, Deadline reported that Lionsgate was working on a movie based on his life as well (although as of August 2019, there's been no more news on that front).

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Hear the whole story in "African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan" by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 15, 2017

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