Yasuke: African Samurai

yasuke a black samurai

Yasuke, a black Samurai from Africa stands alone in uniqueness in regards to historical samurais.

 

I love reading and learning about the Martial Arts and especially the samurai culture. 

I feel that there are certain names or things we should know if we practice or are into the culture of Martial Arts.

 

With so much about Yasuke’s life being  unknown I feel an amazing movie could be realized by telling his story. 

 

Very little of his early life is known and he quickly disappears from records and we can only guess on his outcome.

This leaves so much for speculation and would allow a writer a lot of creative freedom to produce an amazing story. 

I see a Tarantino movie with a lot of swords and decapitations! 

 

I want to present you an account of Yasuke that I’ve collected by reading multiple sources to provide you the best insight on him I can. 

 

From the beginning very little substantiated facts are known about Yasuke’s life.

 

From an account written in 1627, Yasuke was possibly from Mozambique. 

However, there is no surviving contemporary account that corroborates it. 

 

According to Fujita Midori, the first African people who came to Japan were Mozambican. 

Arriving in 1546 as shipmates or slaves who served Portuguese captain Jorge Alvarez, reinforcing the possibility that Yasuke was from Mozambique. 

 

Another theory states that Yasuke was a Habshi from Ethiopia.

Like Yasuke, Habshi were powerful and skilled soldiers unlike other east Africans who suffered from famine. 

According to this theory his original name might be the Ethiopian Yisake or Portuguese Isaque, derived from Isaac. 

 

Yasuke was famous for his height and extremely dark skin color.

This leads us to another possible theory that he was from South Sudan and part of the Dinka culture.

Dinka people are among the tallest in Africa, and have darker skin than Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis.

If this is correct, Yasuke would of possibly been enslaved in his childhood. 

As a note, adult men of Dinkan culture drew patterns on their faces, but there was no recorded account of Yasuke with a face pattern.

yasuke a black samurai

Arriving in Japan

Yasuke accompanied Alessandro Valignano when he came to the capital in March 1581. 

 

Recorded to be over 6 feet tall in an era when most Japanese were closer to 5 feet and with dark skin which most the Japanese had likely never seen.

Not surprisingly his appearance would have created quite a stir. 

 

It was recorded when Yasuke was presented to the warlord Oda Nobunaga, he didn’t believe that what he saw Yasuke’s true skin color.

He believed that it must have been dyed with ink. 

Nobunaga reportedly had him strip from the waste up and had his body scrubbed. 

 

After this meeting Yasuke travelled with the Jesuits who brought him to Japan, most notably Luís Fróis

 

During his travels, Yasuke met with warlords such as Shibata Katsutoyo, Hashiba Hidekatsu, and Shibata Katsuie

 

Upon his return to Kyoto, Yasuke entered Nobunaga’s service

It is not clear how Yasuke entered into service.

However, it has been theorized that Yasuke could speak Japanese, due to Valignano’s demands that his missionaries adapted to the local culture. 

 

It has been recorded that Nobunaga enjoyed talking with him and was even invited to dine with Nobunaga. 

This was considered a high honor that very few samurais were granted. 

 

Yasuka was also most likely the only non-Japanese vassal that Nobunaga had in his service. 

 

Yasuke was mentioned in the Shinchōkōki,the chronicle of Oda Nobunaga, based on records by Ōta Gyūichi. 

According to this, Yasuke was given his own residence and a short, ceremonial katana by Nobunaga. 

 

Nobunaga also assigned him the duty of weapon bearer. 

 

 

Yasuke is recording as being in The Battle of Tenmokuzan, which is viewed as the last stand of the Takeda clan.

Nobunaga led his force including Yasuke, in the final attempt by Takeda Katsuyori to resist the forces of Tokugawa Leyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who had been campaigning against him for some time. 

 

Yasuke’s time as a samurai was short lived

In 1582, Nobunaga was betrayed by his general Akechi Mitsuhide and was defeated. 

As Akechi troops closed in on Nobunaga he committed seppuku.

 

Yasuke was there at the time and fought against Akechi’s army.

 

After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined Nobunaga’s oldest son Oda Nobutada who was assembling the Oda forces at Nijō Castle. 

Yasuke fought alongside the Nobutada forces but was ultimately captured. 

 

When Yasuke was brought to Akechi

Rather than committing seppuku which was expected of a samurai, Yasuke apparently followed a more western custom and offered his sword to Akechi.

Disgusted by this, Akechi allegedly stated that Yasuke was an animal, as well as not Japanese or a “true samurai” and did not have him killed. 

 

Yasuke was taken to the Christian church in Kyoto and returned to the service of Valignano and the Jesuits. 

 

There is no further information written about Yasuke after this with doubt and uncertainty regarding the reliability of his fate.

 

During a pivotal time in Japanese culture Yasuke was anomaly in samurai culture. Interacting with some of the most prominent names and unifiers Japan’s history. 

 

With so little recorded information on Yasuke one can only wonder on his early roots and where he went after Japan. 

 

Did he bring his lessons of a Samurai to other cultures?

 

Did he live out his life as a peaceful missionary? 

 

What other possibilities could of come for Yasuke and and can you imagine the story that could be told? 

 

 

 

12 Comments

  1. This does seem like a perfect story to make a great book or movie out of… it would include culturally rich backgrounds and a deeper look at some fascinating histories that one doesn’t expect to see intersecting! Thanks for pulling together the information that you were able to find about Yasuke. I would definitely be interested in learning more if it were to become available!!

    1. Thanks Aly 

      I agree the story is unique in its own and there is so much mystery around his life and multiple cultures overlapping. 

  2. This Is really interesting, its been long I’ve searched for datials about Yasuke but all I could get were little historical infos that I obviously can’t take serious because they don’t seem real with evidences. This article has done a lot of excellent communication with the history of Yasuke for it to be as detailed as this. I think the history of Yasuke being from Mozambique seem true than others. Thanks.

  3. Very interesting.  I suppose it is my cultural ignorance but I never even considered that there could be a black Samurai from Africa.  I do agree, it would make a great movie.  It has been done with white  Samurai before and that was interesting but this is totally unique. I think Tarantino would do a great job. I love his movies but I think I would like to see a more serious version that wouldn’t make a caricature out of him.  Just my opinion but either way it would be cool.

    1. Thanks Christopher, I tried to be as detailed as possible and display multiple theories where it applied with what there is to back it up. 

      I don’t think there is any cultural ignorance on your part, it’s what make’s Yasuke’s story unique and one of a kind.

      A serious movie on him would be great too!

      I guess what led me to think of Tarantino was that so much about Yasuke’s life is speculation, and it opens up the door for creative liberties. 

      I guess I was thinking of a cross between Django and Kill Bill at the time. 

  4. It sure makes you wonder what happened to him after Japan. Where did he go and what did he do?
    How old was he at this time?

    Is their any research that shows where he was from? Was he African?
    It is also quite impressive that he has learnt Japanese and has chose this kind of life, it does not seems like a typical life for an African man at this time, or am I wrong?

    This is such an interesting article  about “Yasuke: African Samurai” I can honestly say, that I have never read about anything similar before and this truly peaks my interest to learn more about him.

    Thank you for offering this information about Yasuke and parts of his life.

    1. Thanks Alexandra 

      It’s what really adds to the mystery with so little in regards to fact being known about him. 

      After centuries I’m not sure what more we can find unless something written from that time frame that mentions him surfaces.  

      Hopefully so, until then we can just speculate and form an opinion on theory and the little bit we do know. 

  5. Hi 

    Thanks for sharing such an amazing and informative post about sushi fitness.It is a fitness blog and workouts for the martial artist. In this blog you have shared us about the African samurai history. I also like  reading and learning about the Martial Arts and especially the samurai culture like you. By reading your post we all have known about the great samurai Yasuke with his famous history. 

    Thanks again. I’ll share this post with my friends and family. 

  6. You have hit upon a gem of a subject, combining the ‘myth’ and the highly steeped revered traditon of the Samurai and the unknown qualities of this giant of a man. I won’t pretend to know all the details of the Samurai history but I will say that even today I believe their values and beliefs would make many of us hold our heads in shame.

    Yasuke could be made into a modern day legend of our time. We love that ‘outsiders’ can become part of something that even those who are native to the customs, cannot enter into. 

    After his return to the Jesuits I can imagine him finding his own circle of followers and creating his own school, to train those in not only the art of Japanese swordsmanship but his own version of martial arts. He would be an intimidating figure and one that would be feared. 

    Maybe that is why there is so little written about him. He would only pass on his words, wisdom and skills to a select few, who in turn woul do the same. Quietly walking amongst the people, who would know nothing of their skill and abilities.

    1. Thanks Twack

      You brought up an Interesting concept I hadn’t thought about. 

      Perhaps he did pass on his knowledge to students and his lineage continued silently.  

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