Yasuke (ca. 1555-?)

Nijo Castle, Kyoto, Japan, 2009
Courtesy Reggaeman (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many particulars regarding the birth, career, and death of the man of African origin known as Yasuke are cloaked in mystery. The few Portuguese and Japanese sources that mention his brief presence in Japan and as a Samurai omit essential details, leaving him a shadowy figure the in annals of the African diaspora. Even the derivation of his name and place of birth can only be conjectured.

Yasuke was not the first person of African origin to reach Japan.  The first visitors were free or enslaved crewmembers of Portuguese vessels who originated in what is now Mozambique and who arrived in Japan in 1546.  Yasuke accompanied the Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Vaglignano to Japan in 1579.  Yasuke may have served as a military slave or an indentured soldier in India where Vaglignano met him. but by the time they reached Japan, Yasuke was free and was serving as the missionary’s bodyguard and valet.

According to the Portuguese missionary, Luís Fróis, who wrote his account between 1581 and 1582. Fróis recounted the frenzy on the city streets of then capital of Japan, Kyoto when residents lost all decorum upon witnessing for the first time a black man in their midst.

The disturbance accompanying Yasuke’s arrival attracted the attention of the legendary daimyo (feudal warlord) Oda Nobunaga, best remembered for his efforts to unify and bring political stability to Japan. According to the Lord Nobunaga Chronicle, the principal Japanese source that describes Yasuke, Nobunaga demanded that black man strip to his waist and scrub his skin to prove that his dark color was real.

The Chronicle, which first refers to Yasuke by name, which itself is a possible “Japanization” of his birth name or Christian name, confirms the daimyo’s fascination with his skin color and described him as handsome, physically powerful (“possessing the strength of 10 men”), towering 6 foot 2 inches.  Nobunaga orders Yasuke to be his retainer and bodyguard.  Eventually Yasuke rose to the rank of Samurai, a member of a small, elite group of highly skilled and stoic warriors who embraced an unwritten code of conduct which held bravery, honor, and loyalty above life itself.  Stationed in Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, Yasuke was allowed to dine at his master’s table and given his own residence, a privilege extended to few Samurai at the time. Yasuke learned to speak fluent Japanese, he carried a ceremonial katana (sword), and was made the daimyo’s sword bearer.

Yasuke’s career as a Samurai was relatively short-lived but eventful. When Nobunaga’s former general, Akechi Mitsuhide, attempted a coup in June 1582, the daimyo was obliged to perform seppuku (ritual suicide).  Azuchi Castle was torched and the Samurai who had been loyal to Nobunaga, now fought in the army of his oldest son and successor, Oda Nobutada.  When Mitsuhide’s forces prevailed over Nobutada, the new daimyo also committed seppuku at his Niji Castle.

Yasuke, perhaps unimpressed with the tradition of suicide, was persuaded to surrender to Mitsuhide who, for whatever the reason, took pity and spared his life. Sent to rejoin the European Jesuit missionaries (then called “barbarians” by the Japanese), Yasuke soon returned to that obscurity from whence he had briefly escaped.

Recent interest in the nexus between African and Asian peoples has led to considerable interest in people of African ancestry who lived in pre-modern Japan.  Yasuke is the best known of those individual although some such as the sailors on Portuguese vessels, found their way to the Land of the Rising Sun prior to Yasuke’s arrival.  For the next four centuries people of African ancestry continued to accompany foreign missionaries and merchants there, including some African Americans who served in Commodore Matthew Perry’s American expedition which reached Japan in 1853 and “compelled” that nation to open trade to the West. Given the historical information available at this time, however, we believe Yasuke was the sole person of African ancestry who achieved the elite position of Samurai in Medieval Japan.