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Yasuke: a Cultural Icon in Japanese History

Yasuke: a Cultural Icon in Japanese History

Sumō Yūrakuzu Byōbu, an anonymous painting from 1605. The man on the left is theorized to be Yasuke

Post Author - J. Carlin Decker III

For much of its history, Japan has had a relatively homogenized population due to its geographic location and Edo-era isolationist foreign policy. This is not to say the country was completely closed to the word, however. In fact, there are several accounts of foreigners present in Japan, many of whom were traders and missionaries of Dutch and Portuguese origin. Along with them came crewmen, servants, and enslaved people of African and South Asian descent, retainers to those looking to do business in Japan. While there is little historical documentation on these people, one has become an iconic figure: the "African Samurai" Yasuke.

The man who came to be known as Yasuke arrived in Japan in May of 1579 during the Sengoku period, as a protector to the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano. Japan had been in an ongoing period of war, so a bodyguard was required to move throughout the country. Yasuke was most likely brought as a servant from India, though his place of birth is unknown. Even his original name is a mystery. He was of African descent but was likely trafficked at some early point in his life.

For two years Valignano and his party stayed in Japan until one day in 1581 they journeyed to the capital of Kyoto. Valignano sought to speak with Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful daimyos in Japan at the time, in order to improve the Jesuits' standing before he left the country.

Nobunaga was surprised to see Valignano's bodyguard, as this was the first time the man had ever seen someone of African descent. He believed his black skin to be a facade and made the bodyguard remove the clothes from his chest to wash away what Nobunaga thought was ink, but was dumbfounded to find it was not a trick. Nobunaga decided to hire Valignano's bodyguard as his own swordbearer, a high honor in servicing a daimyo, and the man was given a stipend, a house, a sword, his own servants, and also his Japanese name: Yasuke.

An illustration depicting Yasuke fighting alongside Oda Nobunaga from Kurusu Yoshio’s children’s book Kuro-suke

According to a correspondence between Jesuit priests, Nobunaga loved talking with Yasuke, especially as he developed more of the Japanese language, he loved his large size, and he would even let Yasuke explore Kyoto with attendants. Yasuke even went into battle a few times with Nobunaga. He followed the daimyo and his forces to Azuchi Castle in Omi Province (modern-day Shiga Prefecture), and he also helped them fight against the Takeda Clan of Kai Province (modern-day Yamanashi Prefecture). Yasuke was even present in 1582 at Honno-ji Temple in Kyoto when Nobunaga was betrayed and forced to commit seppuku by his senior vassal, Akechi Mitsuhide. Yasuke was taken prisoner and then sent back to the Jesuit mission, which ended the recorded history of the man.

The term ‘samurai’ was not as commonly used in Japan in the Sengoku period to distinguish a societal class as it did in the Edo period, but Yasuke was an individual with his own significant income, weaponry, and responsibilities to his lord much like the samurai of old. Today, there is little direct information about the African man whom Oda Nobunaga grew such an interest in, but the historical evidence that is there does tell a very striking story of an outsider becoming a respected warrior in a foreign land.

Many artists today have attempted to fill in the gaps of Yasuke's life in Japan, as his figure plays a significant role in modern-day popular culture. Yasuke and characters inspired by him are at the forefront of many anime programs, children’s books, manga series, video games, and more. He has become somewhat of a historical folk hero in Japanese pop culture as an image of a black samurai, an outsider from a distant land who grew to fame and power.

Interested in getting your own samurai sword specimen? Check out that and more in our Japan collection here!

Works cited
Girard, Geoffrey, and Thomas Lockley. “African Samurai: the True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan," Harlequin Enterprises ULC, 2019.

Russell, John G. “Excluded Presence: Shoguns, Minstrels, Bodyguards, and Japan's Encounters with the Black Other.” Kyoto University (2007)

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