The Remarkable Tale Of Yasuke, An African Captive Who Became The First Foreign Samurai

If you've ever played the video game Nioh, you might have noticed a tall, ax-wielding, black samurai named Yasuke. Maybe you're a fan of the Afro Samurai anime. Perhaps you're a Hollywood insider all about Lionsgate's Black Samurai film, which was announced in spring 2017. All of these projects are based on a real person. Yasuke was an African samurai who arrived in Japan with Jesuits during the Sengoku period (the Yasuke Nioh character's massive ax is a fabrication, alas). 

During his short stay in the annals of Japanese history, Yasuke rose from slave to vassal to sword bearer. The (maybe) former African slave samurai arrived on Japanese shores in 1579, and only appears in recorded history until 1582. In that small window, he made a huge impression on a very important figure in Japanese history: daimyō (warlord) Oda Nobunaga, whom he served in various capacities. Yasuke was one of few foreigners officially designated a samurai, and he fought in a few major battles, which ought to earn him a spot on the list of awesome samurai.

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  • He Was The Only African Ever Officially Granted The Title 'Samurai' By A Japanese Lord

    He Was The Only African Ever Officially Granted The Title 'Samurai' By A Japanese Lord
    Photo: Artist Unknown / Public Domain

    Yasuke first appears in recorded history in 1579, when he was noted as an attendant to Alessandro Valignano, a Jesuit missionary visiting Japan. By 1581, he had captured the attention of daimyo Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga is regarded as one of the architects of modern Japan; he spent his entire adult life waging a campaign to unite Japan, and managed to bring half the country together under his dictator-like rule, which brought much needed political stability to chaotic regions. In the years after he died, all of Japan unified as a result of events he set in motion.  

    By 1581, Nobunaga officially bestowed the rank of samurai on Yasuke, noting the African had the might of ten men. This was a near-unheard of honor for a non-Japanese warrior. As you may or may not know, not just any fool with some swords and a set of armor could become a samurai. The samurai were members of a unique caste in Japanese society. In 1603, some 20 years after Yasuke's ascendency, samurai accounted for only 10% of Japan's population, making them a rare breed. 

  • Famed Daimyo (Warlord) Oda Nobunaga Thought Yasuke's Skin Was Painted With Black Ink

    Famed Daimyo (Warlord) Oda Nobunaga Thought Yasuke's Skin Was Painted With Black Ink
    Photo: Kanō Sōshū / Public Domain

    Oda Nobunaga supposedly first caught wind of Yasuke on March 23, 1581, when the African's arrival at a Jesuit church caused such a fracas the daimyo heard it from his nearby castle. He summoned Yasuke and, upon first seeing him, assumed his skin was painted. He ordered Yasuke to remove his shirt and had servants scrub his skin to remove the "black ink."

    Impressed by Yasuke's stature, demeanor, and genuine otherness, Nobunaga made him a vassal. If Yasuke had at any point been a slave (records are unclear), Nobunaga freed him from that form of bondage and cast him into another: that of the attendant-lord relationship of feudal Japan. A firsthand account of Yasuke and Nobunaga's first meeting reads: 

    "[A] black page came from the Christian countries. He looked about 26 or 27 years old; his entire body was black like that of an ox. The man was healthy and good-looking. Moreover, his strength was greater than that of 10 men... his name was Yasuke... He was black, and his skin was like charcoal."

  • He Was Such A Sensation In 16th Century Japan People Were Crushed To Death Trying To Catch Sight Of Him

    He Was Such A Sensation In 16th Century Japan People Were Crushed To Death Trying To Catch Sight Of Him
    Photo: Hiroshige / Public Domain

    When Yasuke arrived in Kyoto as part of Alessandro Valignano's mission inspection tour, he caused such a sensation people mobbed to get a glimpse of him. The throngs of curious onlookers swelled such that people were climbing over one another to get close to Yasuke. According to Lawrence Winkler, author of Samurai Road, "several people were crushed to death clamoring to get a look at him."

  • Those With Black Skin Were Well Respected In Japan At The Time; Yasuke Was Invited To Dine With The Daimyō Regularly

    Those With Black Skin Were Well Respected In Japan At The Time; Yasuke Was Invited To Dine With The Daimyō Regularly
    Photo: Eranglo / CC BY 3.0

    According to pioneering work on perceptions of black people in premodern Japan by historian Midori Fujita, those with black skin weren't discriminated against in Yasuke's day. Indeed, it wasn't uncommon for Japanese temples to contain depictions of a black Buddha. 

    Yasuke, who spoke some Japanese upon arriving in Kyoto, picked up the language quickly, and before long was invited to dine with Oda Nobunaga, who enjoyed his company. The daimyō also gave Yasuke a house and a katana, and directed his nephew to give the young African money. 

  • He Met At Least Two Of Japan's Three Great Unifiers, And One Very Famous Turncoat

    He Met At Least Two Of Japan's Three Great Unifiers, And One Very Famous Turncoat
    Photo: Kanō Tan'yū / Public Domain

    Aside from Oda Nobunaga, Yasuke met a handful of some the most important figures in the history of feudal Japan. Returning from the Battle of Tenmokuzan, Yasuke and Nobunaga met Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which rule over unified Japan from 1603 to 1867. Nobunaga was Ieyasu's lord at the time; along with Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded Nobunaga and preceded Ieyasu, they are known as the great unifiers of Japan. It's possible Yasuke also met Hideyoshi, though this isn't explicitly stated in written records. 

    Yasuke also had the misfortune of meeting Akechi Mitsuhide, a general under Nobunaga famous for rebelling against the Oda clan, who is often cited as one of the most loathed figures in Japanese history. 

  • It's Unclear Whether He Was A Slave

    It's Unclear Whether He Was A Slave
    Photo: Pierre Miotte / Public Domain

    In his book Samurai Road, author Lawrence Winkler refers to Yasuke as "a black African servant." A profile by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu refers to Yasuke frequently as a slave. Some sources suggest he was an African-born attendant, while others posit he was a European-born slave from Portugal or a victim of the Arab slave trade in Africa

    Yasuke's Wikipedia page makes no mention of slavery, and asserts that no contemporary accounts of his life before his arrival in Japan exist. Because of this, it's virtually impossible to tell whether he was a slave, and most assertions he was a slave are purely speculation.