Yasuke: The African Samurai

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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 to another theory that he was possibly 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.

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, 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 was Yasuke’s true skin color and that it must have been dyed with ink.

Nobunaga 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, but 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 even 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. Click To Tweet

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 written information about Yasuke after this and there is doubt and uncertainty regarding the reliability of his fate.

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