The forgotten warrior: the story of Yasuke, African samurai

The history of feudal Japan is full of stories about great warriors and their exploits. However, few have left such a great impression on the people there as the tall and strong African who landed near Kyoto almost 500 years ago. His name is Yasuke, and he was the first man born outside of Japan to become a warrior of the highest class – a samurai.

In the following text, I will tell you about the forgotten warrior: the story of Yasuke, the legendary African samurai

Mysterious origin

In the Middle Ages, the people who traveled the furthest were religious missionaries who spread their faith, and Alessandro Valiano was the most famous Catholic of the time who set foot on Asian soil.

On his ship, there was a man about whom this story is about.

An African of unknown name, who would later become known as Yasuke, had a life worthy of a novel. He, together with Valian, arrived on the coast of Japan in 1579.

“Because they were religious figures, the missionaries could not have an army. However, they could have bodyguards, and that was probably Yasuke’s role in Valian’s entourage,” Thomas Lockley, a professor at the University of Tokyo and co-author of a book on Yasukeu.

Nothing is known for sure about the origin of this African.

There are some claims that he is from Mozambique, and that he belongs to the Yao people. This is often claimed because of his name, which is practically the name of the people (Yao) with the Japanese suffix for the male name (suke).

Other sources claim that South Sudan is the place of its origin, and the third that it is Ethiopia.

Thomas Lockley believes that Yasuke is very likely to have its roots somewhere in Northeast Africa, because almost all Africans in Asia came from there at that time.

They climb on the roofs to see him better

It goes without saying that the people in the port near Kyoto, where the missionaries landed, were fascinated by Yasuke.

Warrior Matsudaira Yatada recorded that Yasuke was 1.88 m tall. If we take into account that rarely any Japanese at that time was taller than 1.6 m, then it is clear why he attracted so much attention.

“People flocked to the streets from all sides to see him. We have records that say that they literally climbed on the roofs in order to get a better view of him, and that because of that, the houses collapsed,” Lockley explained.

He adds that people who would see Yasuke probably thought he was a divine person.

Two days later, Oda Nobunaga, the legendary Japanese daimjo (great feudal lord), the first of the three known as the “unifiers of Japan”, also heard of Yasuke.

Welcome party

Not much is known about Yasuke’s life in the first two years of his arrival in Japan, but it is assumed that he went where Valiano did on his mission of preaching the faith.

The mission in the Land of the Rising Sun has come to an end, so the time has come for the Italian to move on, to India.

However, in 1581, Japan could not leave just like that. Valiani had to go to Kyoto and ask Nobunaga for permission, and the latter asked him to keep Yasuke in his service.

“Nobunaga was amazed by Yasuke. People around him were also amazed, because they had probably never seen a man so tall and strong before, and the records mention that Yasuke was very smart,” says Lockley.

His surprise is perhaps best described by the fact that he thought that Yasuke was not actually black, but that it was some kind of trick.

“He asked Yasuke to take off his clothes and scratch his skin, to check if it was paint on his body. Of course that was not the case. Nobunaga, when he saw that Yasuke was really dark-skinned, invited his sons to he sees, and practically organizes for him what we would call a welcome party today, “Lockley explains.

The samurai and the powerful become friends

Yasuke then enters Nobunaga’s service, although it is not mentioned specifically what rank he had, it is known that he was in the narrowest circle of people he trusted.

He was in charge of carrying the master’s sword, which is one of the highest positions a person can have in feudal Japan.

“Even the one who wears his master’s shoes was very respected, so you can imagine what kind of trust Nobunaga had to have in Yasuke in order to entrust him with a weapon while walking next to him,” Lockley points out.

He got a house, servants and money. Of course, he also got a sword, which means that he was a warrior of a very high class – a samurai.

Nobunaga himself thought of himself as a god and built temples for himself, Lokli points out, adding that he probably thought he would be even stronger when he had another god with him – Yasuke.

The African spoke Japanese quite well, and Nobunaga liked to talk to him.

At first, he “hung out” with Yasuke more out of fun, but over time, they became very close, Lockley believes.

“Nobunaga was not a man who had friends. He would order anyone who bothered him at least a little to be killed. However, Yasuke was probably the closest friend he had,” he points out.

With the master to the very end

Given their closeness, it’s no wonder Yasuke stayed with Nobunaga until the very end.

“The last time Yasuke was recorded in history was the moment of Nobunaga’s death. Nobunaga’s enemy named Akechi Mitsuhide attacked him in an ambush with 13,000 people, while the emperor had only 30 soldiers, including Yasuke,” says Lokli.

In order not to die at the hands of the enemy, on June 21, 1582, Nobunaga committed sepuku, a ritual suicide where he ripped his stomach open.

“As far as is known from the record, Yasuke saved Nobunaga’s head so that it would not fall into Mitsuhida’s hands. This is very important, because if Mitsuhida had gotten into Nobunaga’s head, he could rightly claim that the new ruler of Japan, who defeated the old man, “he points out.

It turned out that things didn’t turn out great for Micuhide either – Nobunaga’s supporters killed him 11 days later.

In a letter from a Jesuit, we have written that Yasuke fought with his son, Oda Nobutada, the day after Nobunaga’s death.

Nobutada was also killed, after which Yasuke returned to the Jesuits, and this is the last thing that is reliably known about the first African samurai.

Yasuke is still alive

Despite the fact that we know almost nothing about him after 1582, the echoes of Yasuke’s fate are still present today, as an inspiration for many artists.

“Lately, the story of Yasuke has been getting more and more attention. Mostly only historians, screenwriters or other artists who dealt with the period in which he lived new about him. A black warrior often appears in films besides Nobunaga, but almost no one knew who it was, except the producers, “Lockley explains.

Yasuke’s origins and significance were also an inspiration to Nicolas Ross, a South African artist whose sculptures were mostly inspired by African heritage.

She presented the sculpture of an African samurai at an exhibition called “No Man’s Land”.

“The shadow of colonialism is still over all of us, so by wanting to discover people from this period who are not so well-known, and who greatly influenced people’s perspectives on race, culture and society in the postcolonial era, I show how we should focus on what it unites us, not what separates us, “Nikola Ross told Euronews Serbia.

South Africa is still a place where people fight the remnants of colonialism, and many in the diaspora are torn between a sense of belonging to a new homeland and the land of their ancestors. Precisely for them, Ross thinks that they are on “No Man’s Land”, and he sees the personification of this metaphor in Yasuke.

“Five centuries after he lived, Yasuke reminds us of the incredible exploits of an African somewhere far away in the colonial world. He lives in a space much larger than official history – it serves as a framework for our national feelings and reminds us of a legacy we so often forget. “, he explains.

In the society in which he lived, Yasuke became the border between the colonial past and the non-colonial future, and the fact that he became a “native in the diaspora” connects him with many today who left her country, adds Nikola Ross.


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