Picture courtesy of Anthony Azekwoh, via Wikimedia Commons
Around 1540 (possibly a little later) somewhere in east Africa – likely Mozambique or Ethiopia – a young boy was born. He would be taken into slavery and purchased by the Portuguese, who were more than enthusiastic about owning slaves. As a young man he would be re-sold and purchased by the Jesuit order, and eventually find himself in the halls of power in feudal Japan. But to tell his story, we first need to provide some context about the Portuguese maritime empire and about feudal Japan.
In 1543 the Portuguese arrived in Japan. They started by selling European firearms to Japan’s feudal clans but soon found a better way to make money. Thanks to Sino-Japanese relations an embargo on silk from China was in place, so the Portuguese changed their trade, importing Chinese silk to Japan. They found great success and began to establish themselves in the area. By 1549 Jesuit missionaries had also arrived in Japan and began converting some of the population. Portugal’s vast maritime empire was one of trade and conquest, establishing outposts in many corners of the old and new worlds. The Portuguese had also established trading posts and Jesuit missions in east Africa by this point.
Japan in this period was a hotbed of conflicts, a time where Daimyos waged war on each other, in conflicts similar to European feudalism. This time, known as the Sengoku period, left Japan in a constant state of civil war, political intrigue and upheaval from 1467 to 1615.
In 1579 Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano arrived in Japan with his retinue. After visiting many missions along the way, he had come to Japan to inspect the Jesuit missions there. On his way to Japan he stopped in Modern day Mozambique, where it is believed he purchased a slave to serve him during his travels. When he arrived in Japan news of his slave spread like wildfire. This man was of a height of ‘6 Shaku 2 Sun’ (known to us a 6 foot 2 inches) a size previously unseen in Japan, and furthermore his skin was black. Japan had always been very xenophobic and isolationist throughout it’s early history and black skin was a bewilderment to the common people. People were crushed to death in the crowds that gathered attempting to gaze at the strange slave and the Jesuit master who brought him to their shores. By 1581 the Daimyo Oba Nobunaga heard of this man, but he was sceptical. He mused that it might be a trick by the Jesuits, dying a man’s skin dark and claiming this was his true colour. Oba Nobunaga had the Jesuit and his slave brought to Kyoto and summoned them before him. When presented with the slave Nobunaga ordered him to strip his clothing to prove he was in fact a black skinned man. Once this was done Nobunaga was still sceptical and ordered him to be thoroughly scrubbed and washed to reveal the Jesuit trickery. When his skin remained the same despite the scrubbing Nobunaga held a feast in honour of this dark skinned man (please note that this was highly irregular in feudal Japan as only the highest ranking officials and Samurai could dine with a Daimyo).
This is when our tale takes an unexpected turn, as a great friendship formed between Nobunaga and the slave, who was now known as Yasuke (‘the black one’ in Japanese). Nobunaga ordered his nephew to give Yasuke a sum of money, and on 14th of May 1581 Yasuke and the Jesuits carried on their journey to visit other missions. As they made their stops Yasuke met with other famed warlords and warriors of the period such as Shibata Katsutoyo, Hashiba Hikekatsu and Shibata Katsuie. Yasuke and the missionaries returned to Kyoto by the 30th of May and at some point afterwards Yasuke was freed from slavery and entered Nobunaga’s service as a retainer (bodyguard). He was awarded a short ceremonial Katana, traditional armour, ceremonial robes and land by Nobunaga.
It is believed that Yasuke was taught Japanese by the Jesuits along with a certain amount of knowledge about Japanese culture. Yasuke frequently conversed and dined with Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga himself was noted to be very interested in Yasuke and his homeland, and displayed a general fascination with all things western (well, west of Japan!) as he sometimes dressed in the European fashions and was very keen on European harquebuses (early matchlock firearms that preceded the musket), often having his army use them in battle and basing his military stratagems around them. It is believed that it was during this time that Yasuke was taught the Bushido (Japanese warrior) code.
In 1582 Nobunaga and his ally Tokugawa Leyasu went to conquer the lands of the Takeda clan and Yasuke was appointed as Nobunaga’s weapon bearer in battle. It was during the battle of Tenmokuzan that the conflict came to its bloody end as the Oda-Tokugawa forces were heavily outnumbered by the Takeda-Oyamada alliances (4000 against 35,000). It is believed that during this battle Yasuke fought bravely alongside his lord and slew many samurai. The battle was a victory for the Oda-Tokugawa alliance and the battle itself became known as the last stand of the Takeda clan where their lord committed Seppuku (ritual suicide) at the end of the battle.
After this victory Oda Nobunaga and Yasuke returned to Kyoto where Nobunaga decided to rest at the Honno-Ji temple surrounded by poets, servants and merchants. He had ordered his armies to occupy the territories of other clans in a bid to unify Japan and become the Shogun, but he was betrayed by his general Akechi Mitsuhide who assaulted the temple and slew any who stood in their way. Nobunaga and Yasuke fought bravely but Nobunaga was gravely wounded by an arrow and while he still drew breath he committed Seppuku. One legend states that Oda Nobunaga ordered Yasuke to take his head and his Katana to his son Oda Nobutada. It is unknown whether Yasuke did this or not, but he did rejoin Oda Nobutada after escaping the temple. When he arrived at Nijo castle, where Oda Nobutada was trying to rally the small Oda forces, Akechi forces had already arrived and assaulted the castle. Determined to protect his lord’s son, Yasuke fought bravely against all odds, using the strength of ten men (so legend says) but he and Oda Nobutada were taken prisoner.
Oda Nobutada was forced to commit Seppuku as tradition demanded but whem Akechi Mitsuhide was presented with Yasuke, he had not committed suicide as the bushido code demanded, instead presenting his sword to the victor in the European fashion of surrender. This infuriated Mitsuhide who showed nothing but contempt for Yasuke and ordered him to be taken to the church of the southern barbarians (Jesuits) and pronounced that he should not be forced to commit Seppuku as he was neither Japanese, nor a man but a beast. It is historically unclear whether the labeling of Yasuke as a beast sprung from racism surrounding his foreign origin and dark skin, or whether it was simply a means to shame the Black samurai who had not fulfilled the honour code by taking his own life.
It is said that the Jesuits were pleased to see that Yasuke had survived everything he had been through and thanked God for returning him to them. It is not known what happened to Yasuke after this, as he fades from the historical records never to be heard of again. Some stories say he returned home to east Africa, some say he died in Japan as a Ronin and one other unsubstantiated story claims he became a pirate. All of these are just myths and legends and have no historical evidence to support them, or to shed light on whatever may have been Yasuke’s fate after 1582.
Soon after the Honno-Ji incident Mitsuhide made peace with the Oda’s enemies. This was a short-lived reign as on the 2nd of July 1582 the remnants of Oda’s army, under the leadership Toyotomi Hideyoshi, avenged their lords Nobunaga and defeated Mitsuhide’s army at the battle of Yamazaki. Mitsuhide fled only to be killed in the town or Ogurusu by a gang of bandits. By 1615 the Sengoku period ended when Tokugawa Leyasu established the Tokugawa Shogunate (although established in 1603).
Although Yasuke had only been a samurai for a year, it’s the only small proportion of his life that can actually be verified by historical sources. He has appeared on Japanese paintings and ceramics of the period next to Oda Nobunaga. Culturally Yasuke opened the door for other foreigners to become samurai, but he was the only black one. His deeds and valour paved the way for other Japanese warlords to allow men such as William Adams, Eugene Collach, John Henry Schnell and many more to become Samurai throughout Japanese history.
Yasuke is remembered in Japan through children’s stories, anime and video games to this day, along with his fame continuing through other pieces of literature. What makes him so interesting is that his story endures despite the fact that no one knows his real name, where exactly he came from, or what happened to him after 1582.