Yasuke: The African Samurai
Artwork representing Yasuke the African samurai (source: Kintaro)
TThe first foreigner to be a samurai was a huge African who arrived in Japan 500 years ago, during the feudal reign of the legendary Oda Nobunaga, the first of the three unifiers of Japan. A tall 6.2-foot figure that before becoming a slave was apparently a relentless warrior with a high interest in martial arts. As Yasuke is quite an old story many see him as a legend more than anything however, the facts to add up.
From Africa to Japan
Most of you may be asking how does an African slave ends up at the end of East Asia. Well, the story is quite interesting. It all began with an Italian explorer by the name of Alessandro Valignano that was in the look for undiscovered lands and possible treasures that would have high value in the western world. It is said that Yasuke was one of the slaves on board of his ship. Whilst passing near Japan they stopped at Kyoto (Japan’s capital in the 16th century).
Some historians state that Yasuke was left by Alessandro whilst others argue that he had run from Alessandro once they have reached Kyoto. Most Japanse people are not very tall averaging at a height of 4.9 feet so you could imagine the skin color and hight of Yasuke made him quite the show around town. It wasn’t long until word reached Oba Nobunaga’s ear that an African man was wondering around his city with his talent as an orator.
Interestingly enough Yasuke knew a bit of Japanese already so the first meeting between Oda Nobunaga and Yasuke was quite pleasant as historian Thomas Lockey states in his book written about Yasuke’s life. Yasuke told Oda Nobunaga about different experiences he had lived in Africa and India before ending up in Japan as well as how we ended up in Japan in the first place. He also spoke about the cruelty western society had on slaves and how they are portrayed.
From slave to respected samurai
Nobunaga so the potential that Yasuke had in him, he saw his ability to understand Japanese culture and felt his warrior spirit therefore he decided to train him to become a samurai. Other samurais were reluctant about Nobunaga’s choice as Yasuke wasn't Japanese and they did not believe in his abilities. To no surprise, Yasuke did no only become a samurai in less than a year’s time but also became fluent in Japanese.
Yasuke took part in many battles besides Nobunaga as a samurai and it is argued by some historians that Yasuke actually played an important role in saving Nobunaga’s life when general Akechi Mitsuhide turned against Nobunaga and had set the imperial palace on fire. Nobunaga was locked in a room whilst the palace was a flame, that is when Yasuke used his sheer force and broke him out of the room then carried him out of the burning palace.
Later in time, a Japanese warlord asked Nobunaga if Yasuke could join his war party. Yasuke was taken in by the warlord to become his weapon bearer. To be a weapon bearer to the most powerful warlord in the whole of Japan was a great privilege and honor. The weapon bearer was also the one to be trusted with secrets, especially those relating to affairs outside the state.
Otherwise, not much is known about Yasuke or what his faith was even if most historians do predict that he had died honorably in battle as all samurais. It is interesting how a man from a totally different culture had adopted to become one of the best samurais taking into account that this is still considered to this day one of the most complex warriors from the medieval times.