The Sengoku period in Japan, spanning from 1467 to 1615, was a time of great upheaval and transformation marked by political intrigue, warfare, and social change.
The demand for samurai was at an all-time high, and the culture of the samurai underwent significant transformation.
Among the many interesting stories from this era is the tale of Yasuke, a black samurai who stood out as an outsider in a society that was notoriously homogeneous.
Yasuke befriended Oda Nobunaga, a prominent daimyo, and was involved in many of the most significant events of the period, leaving a lasting impression on Japanese history.
Yasuke who was a renowned warrior, achieved the rank of samurai under the patronage of Oda Nobunaga, a powerful feudal lord who played a pivotal role in unifying Japan during the 16th century.
Upon Yasuke’s arrival in Kyoto, the capital city at the time, in 1579, his presence generated an enormous sensation, with people clamouring to catch a glimpse of the African samurai, resulting in some being crushed to death.
Within a year, Yasuke had risen to the upper echelons of Japan’s warrior class, fluent in Japanese, and fighting alongside Nobunaga in battles.
Matsudaira Ietada, a fellow samurai, described Yasuke as standing at 6 feet, 2 inches, with dark skin, akin to charcoal, in his 1579 diary entry.
Given the generally shorter stature of the Japanese people in the 16th century, Yasuke’s height would have made him tower over most people, leaving a lasting impression in Japanese history.
Yasuke’s life has continued to inspire to this day, including a new anime series by Netflix titled Yasuke.
This project is a collaborative effort between LeSean Thomas, the creator, and director, and the Japanese animation studio MAPPA.
The series is executive produced by LaKeith Stanfield, who voices Yasuke, and Flying Lotus, who produced the soundtrack.
Through this new anime series, Yasuke’s legacy is given a fresh perspective, bringing his story to a new generation of viewers.
Yasuke has been featured in various popular culture mediums, highlighting the impact of his life on the Japanese society of his time.
In 1968, Kurusu Yoshio authored a children’s book titled Kuro-suke, depicting Yasuke’s journey as a samurai.
The book follows the adventures of Kurosan Yasuke or Kuro-suke, a hard-working and cheerful hero who fights alongside Nobunaga in the Battle of the Honno-Ji temple, much like the real-life Yasuke.
The book does include Nobunaga’s seppuku, a tragic scene that is not typically found in modern children’s books. The story concludes with a poignant moment of Kuro-suke’s silence.
Furthermore, Yasuke made an appearance in the 2017 video game Nioh as a playable character, further enhancing his cultural significance.
Additionally, in 2019, a film based on Yasuke’s story was announced, featuring the late Chadwick Boseman as the African samurai.
The announcement added to the growing attention on Yasuke’s story, bringing his legacy to a wider audience and underscoring his remarkable place in Japanese history.
Early life of Yasuke
When Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579, he accompanied Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit, likely serving as Valignano’s bodyguard.
According to Lockley, as a priest, Valignano was not permitted to have any soldiers or guards.
Thus, he employed valets, who were trained in combat and weaponry. In 1581, Valignano traveled to Kyoto, then the capital city, to meet with Oda Nobunaga and request permission to leave Japan.
It was during this trip that Yasuke encountered the feudal lord, and his remarkable journey as a samurai began to unfold.
Yasuke’s origins remain a mystery and continue to be a subject of speculation among historians.
It is unclear how he came into the service of Alessandro Valignano, or what his life was like before he arrived in Japan.
The lack of written history about his past has contributed to various theories and assumptions. Some historians believe that he may have been a victim of the European or Arab slave trade and hailed from Congo, Angola, or Ethiopia.
Other accounts suggest that he belonged to the Dinka community in South Sudan, who are known for their towering height. Yasuke’s age is another point of contention, with various primary sources contradicting each other, placing his age anywhere between 16 to 28.
Despite the uncertainty about Yasuke’s background, one thing is clear: he was an exceptional warrior who achieved the rare distinction of becoming a samurai, a feat that had not been accomplished by a non-Japanese person before.
Yasuke’s physical stature, towering over the relatively shorter Japanese people of the 16th century, added to his remarkable legacy.
The details of his life, though shrouded in mystery, have contributed to the intrigue surrounding his persona, and continue to capture the imagination of those who are fascinated by his story.
Friendship with Nobunaga, the warlord
The African warrior and the Japanese warlord shared several commonalities, despite coming from different cultural backgrounds.
Nobunaga, the renowned Japanese warlord, was deeply passionate about martial arts and spent much of his time practicing them.
He was also known for his eccentric personality, which included a penchant for Western-style clothing and an affinity for associating with highly disciplined and intelligent individuals.
Moreover, Nobunaga was well-versed in Japanese cultural practices, including the historic Swahili narrative poetry, Utenzi, which celebrated heroic deeds.
This is intriguing as it suggests that Yasuke, the African warrior in Nobunaga’s retinue, may have originated from Mozambique, where Swahili is still spoken in some northern regions of the country.
Likewise, Nobunaga was a connoisseur of Noh Drama, a classical Japanese musical drama, and was reputed to have been a patron of the arts.
Yasuke was a cherished member of Nobunaga’s inner circle and was treated as family. He was among the select few allowed to dine with the warlord.
This suggests a deep bond between the two individuals that transcended cultural barriers and spoke to the universality of human connection.
Oda Nobunaga is a renowned figure in Japanese history, having played a significant role during the Sengoku period.
As a daimyo, he is widely regarded as one of the key unifiers of Japan, a pivotal figure who was instrumental in ensuring that Japan would become one country rather than a collection of smaller, disparate regions.
Through his efforts, Nobunaga had successfully brought about political stability to several previously chaotic regions of the country, unifying almost half of Japan by the time of his death.
His legacy continued even after his demise, as his unification efforts had laid the foundation for the eventual complete unification of Japan. Overall, Nobunaga’s role as a great unifier was instrumental in shaping the course of Japanese history.
The Life of Yasuke in Japan
During his time in Japan, Yasuke was a unique and captivating presence, drawing crowds wherever he went.
His dark complexion sparked curiosity among the Japanese people, who often mistook him for a divine visitor due to their association of blackness with Buddhist statues. In some instances, the crowds became so overwhelming that buildings collapsed under their weight.
However, Yasuke was not just a spectacle to be gawked at. He had a keen intellect and a willingness to learn about the Japanese culture, which quickly won him the favor of his master, Oda Nobunaga.
Nobunaga treated him with respect and directed his nephew to provide Yasuke with financial support. In a rare honor, Yasuke was even invited to dine with Nobunaga, an exclusive privilege typically reserved for only the most esteemed samurai.
During his time serving under Nobunaga, Yasuke had the opportunity to meet many influential figures of the Sengoku period, including Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
However, not all of his encounters were fortunate, as he also met Akechi Mitsuhide, who later assassinated Nobunaga and briefly held the title of shogun before being defeated by Hideyoshi.
Throughout his time in Japan, Yasuke’s dedication to learning about and adapting to the culture earned him respect and prestige among his peers, and he eventually acquired his own private residence and a katana sword.
The Fight For Nobunaga, The Warlord
Oda Nobunaga was a successful military and political leader, and much of his success can be attributed to his openness to foreign ideas and cultures.
He had a particular fascination with Western customs, including clothing and wine, and was known for incorporating them into his lifestyle.
Nobunaga’s interest in Western innovations also revolutionized Japan’s approach to warfare. In 1549, he ordered 500 matchlocks, which were known as tanegashima in Japan. At the time, guns were considered ineffective compared to traditional bows.
However, Nobunaga’s armies quickly recognized the potential of firearms and worked to improve their effectiveness.
They developed new techniques for continuous firing, invented coated boxes to protect the guns in the rain, and even created a string system to allow for accurate firing at night.
By 1575, arquebusiers using these innovations were able to win the Battle of Nagashino by continuously firing across a river at charging enemy forces.
Yasuke’s story continues to captivate and inspire people today.
Yasuke’s remarkable journey to become Japan’s first black samurai remains one of the most fascinating tales of the Sengoku period.
Today, his legacy lives on through books and even an anime series. His story serves as a reminder of the importance of embracing diversity and celebrating individuals who break down barriers and challenge stereotypes.