The story of Yasuke, the Black Samurai

Yasuke next to missionary Alessandro Valignano
Yasuke next to missionary Alessandro Valignano

The epic story of Yasuke, the first foreign samurai has hit bookstores, and provides readers with a comprehensive description of a man who witnessed great moments in Japanese history, but whose personal story has been ignored until now.

The book, African Samurai: The true story of Yasuke, a legendary black warrior in feudal Japan, was written by authors Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard, published by Hanover Square Press.

Yasuke was an African bodyguard who came to Japan with Jesuit missionaries in 1579 and later became the confidant of Oda Nobunaga, who sought to appease different warring clans and thus unify the country.

Scholar Thomas Lockley, associate professor in the law department at Nihon University in Tokyo, spent nine years examining documents and books, and visiting battlefields to reconstruct Yasuke’s never-before-told biography.

Over the years, the story of this African samurai has been portrayed in movies, books, anime, and manga. But many of his feats are fictitious, and Lockley believes it is time for a more accurate portrait. “I like to find characters that escape through the cracks in history. Japan now claims that Yasuke is one of them and there is a growing appreciation for Japan’s multicultural heritage, ”says Lockley.

Yasuke rendering

Although the book is largely based on primary sources, Lockley had to do a lot of “guesswork research” to complete the narrative.

Yasuke is believed to have been born to the Dinka tribe in the 1550s in what is now South Sudan. As a child he was sold as a slave and trafficked to India, where he became the bodyguard of the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who was in charge of developing Catholic missions in the East.

They reached the island of Kyushu in 1579, and a few years later the pair traveled to Kyoto to meet Nobunaga. Hundreds of people in the city came out to see Yasuke: Most of them had never seen a black man in their life. Nobunaga did not even believe that they existed, and there are versions that relate that he carved Yasuke’s skin to prove it.

From his stay in Kyushu, Yasuke had learned to speak Japanese, and established a good relationship with Oda Nobunaga. Yasuke used to tell her stories from Africa and India. Nobunaga was thrilled by his tests of strength. Lockley even suggests that they had a sexual relationship, something common among Daimyos and subordinates.

Yasuke Sculpture
Yasuke Sculpture

When Valignano left Japan, he offered Yasuke to Nobunaga. Yasuke was subsequently made a samurai, and is generally accepted as the first foreigner to obtain the title.

Yasuke’s main duties were as a bodyguard and squire. He also entertained visitors to Nobunaga’s court. “Yasuke was familiar and knew Nobunaga to a degree that a Japanese could not,” says Lockley.

As part of his personal circle, the African samurai fought other clans alongside Nobunaga. However, in 1582 Nobunaga was forced to commit ritual suicide during a coup attempt. Before dying he asked Yasuke to give his head and sword to his son and heir. Yasuke also witnessed the suicide of Nobunaga’s son.

After this, Yasuke’s fate is unclear, so Lockley had to play the role of a historical detective and try to form a picture of what happened to Yasuke for the rest of his life.

One possibility is that Yasuke was captured and sent to Nagasaki to work with the Jesuit community. Evidence points to Yasuke may have worked as a travel advisor for Japanese feudal lords venturing to southwestern Japan, or even the Philippines and the Korean peninsula.

Another alternative is that he was employed as a pirate, given his experience on the high seas and his supposed physical strength. Neither alternative is certain.

Photograph of a samurai assistant. The traits suggest that it is mixed.

The book also suggests that there are high chances that he had descendants who continued to live in Japan. It’s possible, as Yasuke had multiple wives, and the book has an intriguing photo taken in 1864 of a samurai wizard who appears to be mixed.

On explaining Yasuke’s attractiveness, Lockley says: “I think it’s the romance and the tragedy of someone who comes from having nothing to become a hero in a distant land and who probably loses everything again. Or maybe he didn’t lose it and continued to work successfully in the service of another feudal lord? We do not know. And it is another attraction. Where do the facts end and the myth begin? ”