Not all samurai were Japanese

In 1579, a young man arrived in Japan from Mozambique. He was the servant (or slave) of an Italian Jesuit who had been appointed Visitor of the “Indies” (East and South, and East Africa). Where exactly this young man was born is lost to time; he may have been Mozambican, perhaps a member of the Yao people.


In any case, he traveled with his Jesuit master/lord/owner/whatever to the capital area in 1581, and the people were quite amazed at him. According according to one account, several people were crushed to death as the Japanese clamoured to get a good look at the 6’2″ dark-skinned man. There’s no wonder; the Japanese, being an island nation, were relatively insular.

“On the 23rd of the 2nd month March 23, 1581, a black page (黒坊主, kuro-bōzu) came from the Christian countries. He looked about 26, 24 or 25 by Western count or 27 years old; his entire body was black like that of an ox. The man was healthy and good-looking. Moreover, his strength was greater than that of 10 men.”
信長公記 (Shinchō kōki), the chronicle of Oba Nobunaga

Suspecting the young man’s skin colour was due to black ink, warlord Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長) had him strip off his clothes and wash to prove the authenticity of his complexion, and that it wasn’t black paint or ink on his skin. Thus convinced, and impressed with the physical strength and physical attributes of this young man, and, apparently, his level of competence in Japanese, Oda took him into his service, awarding him the position of shikan (仕官), the samurai service. This was a rare honour for a foreigner, let alone a servant, and he was perhaps the warlord’s only non-Japanese warrior.


A  depiction of Yasuke by South African sculptor Nicola Roos

Oda gave him a short, ceremonial katana (刀), as well as the Japanese name Yasuke (弥助, 弥介, 彌助, or 彌介, depending on the source), perhaps a Japanese rendering of his original name, or a reference to his possible Yao ethnicity. In his service as samurai (侍), Yasuke was weapon bearer, and remained with Oda until 1582.

In this year, Oda was attacked by the forces of samurai general Akechi Mitsuhide (明智 光秀), and forced to do seppuku (切腹), suicide by disembowelment. It is said that Yasuke joined the heir and oldest son of his former master, Oda Nobutada (織田 信忠), and fought with Nobutada’s other men before eventually surrendering his sword to Akechi’s men.

After Yasuke’s surrender, Akechi’s warriors asked Akechi himself what they should do with him. The general said of Yasuke that he was a beast, undeserving of the title of samurai, and did not know anything, so they should not kill him. It is speculated that he said this because he pitied Yasuke, and that it was his way of giving him mercy. It is also possible, though, that he simply did not want to offend the Jesuits, in this time of political turmoil. Black people were not discriminated against in Japan at the time, it is said, but, they were admired, since the Buddha was often depicted in black in Japanese temples.

Thus, Akechi ordered that Yasuke be taken to the nanbandera/nanbanji (南蛮寺, literally “temple of the southern barbarians”). What happened next to the first and only African in history to be given the revered title of samurai may never be known. No records survive of his life after his return to the Jesuits.

Nonetheless, his story is still remembered to this day.



African History Lesson : Yasuke [The African Samurai]“, Africapublic

Yasuke“, Wikipedia

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Language Issues, 日本語 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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