Was Oda Nobunaga a bad ruler

Yasuke - the black samurai

"His height was 1.88 m ... he was black and his skin was like coal," is how the samurai Matsudaira Ietada described him. In 1579, the residents of Kyoto were amazed when they saw a dark-skinned person for the first time in their life. Who was this stranger who not only caused a stir in Japan, but also rose to the rank of samurai - as the first foreigner ever?

1. From Africa to Japan

Let's call him Yasuke. Its African name is unknown, but that is how it was later called by the Japanese. Yasuke was probably born in Mozambique or Sudan. “Probably” because historians still argue about its origins. Much about him is unfortunately not clearly documented historically, which leaves much room for speculation to this day.

So Yasuke was born somewhere in Africa. Nothing specific is known about his childhood. It is believed, however, that he was kidnapped by slave traders as a boy and made his way through the Arab countries to India, where he was sold as a child slave. After a few years as a slave and child soldier in what is now the Indian state of Goa, he is said to have been sold to the Portuguese Jesuits who lived there. This could fit, as Goa was an important trading, military and mission base of the Portuguese at that time, which also served as a slave transshipment point.

For the Jesuits, the military-savvy Yasuke worked as a bodyguard for the Jesuit monk Alessandro Valignano. The Italian Valignano was one of the most powerful missionaries in Asia during his lifetime and was supposed to advance the Catholic mission in East Asia - together with his new servant.

In 1579, the approximately 25-year-old Yasuke and Valignano reached the port of Nagasaki and thus the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The missionary was assigned to oversee the mission in Japan. In the 16th century, Japan was anything but a safe place, as soldiers of warring princes, battle monks and bandits roamed around and made travel dangerous. Yasuke was therefore taken along to protect the missionary. On their journey through Japan they forged alliances with princes and Yasuke is said to have practiced Japanese martial arts and trained allied soldiers. In the end, her mission took her - in a double sense - to Kyoto, where they met Oda Nobunaga.

2. Meeting with Oda Nobunaga

Oda Nobunaga was a Japanese warlord and, alongside Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the three famous unifiers. Every child in Japan still knows this today - so please note the names! Why were the three so important? Because in 1477 after the disempowerment of the Muromachi shogunate, which had ruled Japan centrally since 1338, Japan was split up into around 200 territories with independent princes. These princes, called daimyo, fought each other from then on with changing alliances in order to gain supremacy over the country. Nobunaga, himself a daimyo, wanted to end this politically confused time, which had gone down in history as the “time of the warring states (Sengoku-Jidai)”, and to bring peace back to Japan - or at least to become the sole ruler. His second successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, also succeeded in doing this in 1603 with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

But let's come back to Yasuke, who attracted people's interest due to his exotic appearance. There are even said to have been deaths when people crushed each other in the crowd to take a look at him. Not only his dark skin, but also his size and strength deeply impressed the people of Kyoto. The average height of a Japanese man in the 16th century was less than 1.58 m, which was normal as the food supply during that period was of course poorer than it is today. Yasuke with his stately height of 1.88 m, who towered over all his fellow men by more than a head, must therefore have seemed like a giant to the short Japanese.

When Yasuke met Nobunaga, he couldn't believe that black people even existed. For Nobunaga he was either a protective demon or Daikokuten, one of the seven Japanese gods of luck, who is often depicted with black skin. Nobunaga is said to have even ordered him to bare to his waist and rub his skin to get the "black ink" off - to no avail. When Nobunaga noticed that Yasuke or his skin color was real, he is said to have thrown a big party in his honor.

Yasuke did not only impress Nobunaga with his body and his strength - Nobunaga is said to have said that he is as strong as 10 men. Thanks to Valignano's support, Yasuke was also able to speak a little Japanese, because knowledge of Japanese was undoubtedly extremely practical when proselytizing. Therefore, he astonished Nobunaga with his language skills and they often talked, whereby the versatile Nobunaga was particularly enthusiastic about stories about Africa and India.

3. Yasuke becomes a samurai

When Valignano had to leave Japan after a while, he offered Nobunaga Yasuke as a servant. Yasuke was still the “property” of Valignano and he now handed it over to Nobunaga. At first Yasukes was the exotic servant at Nobunaga's court, but after only a month he was elevated to the rank of samurai. In this way, an African became not only the first historically documented foreign servant of a daimyo, but also the first black samurai in Japan.

So Yasuke served his new master as a samurai on the battlefield. 1581 was Yasuke's first participation in a military mission from Nobunaga. The goal was to conquer what is now Iga Prefecture. The catch was that Iga was surrounded by mountains and more than 40,000 enemy soldiers and ninja knew how to defend themselves. After a failed first campaign two years earlier, Nobunaga managed to gain control of Iga that year with Yasuke's help.

In addition to the rather bloody job as a warrior, Yasuke was an entertainer at Nobunaga's court, who entertained his master's guests and at the same time intimidated them. He received a salary, an estate, commanded his own servants and received an ornate katana from Nobunaga. He was also one of the few who was allowed to have dinner with Nobunaga in person. All these honors were actually only bestowed on very privileged servants and indicate that Nobunaga held his unusual servant in high regard.

It is believed that Yasuke spent a lot of time training martial arts - which, as a samurai, he must have had. But at the same time he was an eccentric who often wore Western clothing and sought to get close to elitist, educated personalities. He is also said to have liked to dance and to have mastered Utenzi, an African art of poetry about heroic deeds in Swahili. Poetry in particular could have been enjoyed by Nobunaga, who himself was a lover of culture and a passionate supporter of Japanese Nō theater.

4. Nobunaga's last wish

But in 1582 Yasuke's life suddenly changed. A general from Nobunaga, Akechi Mitsuhide, betrayed his master that year and instigated a rebellion. One night in June, Nobunaga's castle in Kyoto was attacked by Mitsuhide. When it was finally on fire, the cornered Nobunaga ritual suicide, seppuku, began.

That fateful night, Yasuke was also with his master and fought against the enemy troops. And not only that. Nobunaga asked his loyal black samurai to deliver his head and sword to his son Oda Nobutada after Nobunaga himself slit his stomach and a servant beheaded him - as was the custom with Seppuku. This last order was a sign of his great confidence in Yasuke.

After Nobunaga's death, Yasuke delivered everything to Nobutada and continued to fight alongside Nobutada's forces until he and Nobutada were captured by Mitsuhide's forces. Like his father, Nobutada was forced to commit seppuku, which Yasuke witnessed again. The enemy general Mitsuhide, however, spared Yasuke because in his eyes a black was “an animal and not a Japanese”. It could also be that Mitsuhide did not want to mess with the Jesuits or foreigners in Japan and therefore left Yasuke alive.

5. Yasuke's trail is lost

Little is known about the further life of the black samurai, but it is all the more speculated. The most convincing scenario is that after his capture, Yasuke was sent back to the Christian church in Kyoto or Nagasaki to live in the Jesuit community. There he then worked, according to a few tips, as a commercial advisor to local daimyo and traveled on business to Korea and the Philippines, among other places. Alternatively, he could have made his living as a pirate, as he already had experience on the high seas and was physically far superior to most Japanese. In any case, both were interesting career alternatives.

Yasukes could also have had many wives during his life in Japan and accordingly fathered many offspring. An old photo from 1864 is, for some, a reference to Yasuke's legacy: it shows an assistant to a samurai who looks half Japanese and half foreign or African. Maybe a descendant?

6. The black samurai in the cinema

I really like the story of a black samurai in Japan. It is fascinating how international Japan was in the 16th century and that not only Europeans but also Africans came to the country. The story “from slave from Africa to samurai in Japan” sounds like a fairy tale to my ears - but like an extremely good and in many parts even true one.

Of course, one must not forget that a lot about Yasuke is based on assumptions or speculations and not everything about his life can be reconstructed due to a lack of historical sources. Some also claim that he was not a slave but a warrior or a trader. Some are also amazed that he was able to become a samurai so quickly. Its exact origins and many of its secrets seem to lie in the dark of history, which does not detract from the fact that it was in Japan and actually existed.

By the way, the topic of the black samurai also occurs in Japanese pop culture. Anime fans should see similarities in “Afrosamurai”, even if, to my knowledge, it is not known whether the manga author used the “real Afrosamurai” Yasuke as a template. There are also books about him, such as the Japanese children's book “Kuro-suke” from 1968 or non-fiction books such as “Yasuke: The true story of the legendary African Samurai”, which was created after 9 years of research. All of the works attempt to trace Yasuke's life and historical significance in one way or another. Coolly, a new Hollywood movie and Netflix series about Yasuke are also planned. The subject has apparently recently been rediscovered by the media - perhaps thanks in part to the 2018 Black Panther superhero film.

What do you think? How did you like the little, somewhat unusual excursion into Japanese history? In any case, Yasuke's life is still fascinating and motivating and is worth telling.


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