We have always been fascinated with the story of the stranger in a strange land, who goes on to defy all expectations and find a way to fit in and excel in the new environment. This has been a trope in fiction for quite some time, but it is of course not merely in the realm of fiction, and at times this has played out for real. One such story is that of a lowly slave brought far from his home to the faraway land of Japan, where he was regarded as a freak and then managed to move his way up into the upper echelons of society, becoming the first and perhaps only black samurai to have ever lived.
In the 16th century Japan was a very different place from what it is now. This was a bygone age of clashing provinces and nearly constant battle, ruled over by feudal lords known as daimyōs, and it was the era of the fierce samurai warriors loyal to these rulers. At the same time, the isolated nation was closed off from the outside world, with the Japanese showing little interest and even disdain towards foreigners. This was a time of almost no contact with the outside world, and very few outsiders had any glimpse into this mysterious land. It may as well have been some far away alien planet. It was not until early European explorers began to find their way to these shores that there would be any real tentative contact between the Japanese and the wider world, and among the earliest were the Portuguese, who were the first to make any real contact with this long isolated nation.
At the time, Portugal was a major force in world exploration, but unfortunately they were also very into the nafarious slave trade. One of these slaves found himself aboard a Portuguese vessel under the service of the Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, who was among the very first Europeans to bring the idea of Christianity to the Far East. The history of the slave who would eventually be known as “Yasuke” is rather murky, to say the least, but he is thought to have been born in Portuguese Mozambique in around 1555 and brought along on Valignano’s journey to the Japanese capital of Kyoto in order to start a mission there sometime around 1579 to 1581.
Although it is unclear, it is thought that this slave, whose original name was probably “Yasufe,” was among the first black people the Japanese had ever seen, and he was immediately met with intense curiosity. Besides the color of his skin, which the ignorant Japanese took to be some sort of ink, he stood at around 6’2”, which in those days was exceptionally tall, surely towering above the average Japanese at the time, and this made him a bit of a curious, bizarre spectacle. The Japanese had never seen anything quite like him before, and looked upon him with a mix of awe, curiosity, and fear. Such was the rush to get a look at this unusual sight that some accounts say there were people actually crushed in an attempt to get a closer look at him, and doors were apparently smashed down in an effort to see him.
Such was the furor caused by the arrival of this “black giant,” that it caught the attention of the great Japanese feudal warlord and daimyō Oda Nobunaga, who at first was supposedly skeptical to the point that he ordered Yasufe’s skin scrubbed to prove that it wasn’t merely black ink. This was not necessarily racist, just remember that they had simply never seen anyone of African ancestry before and did not know what to make of it. Convinced that this was no trickery, Oda then became enamored with the slave, who he called Yasuke. The daimyō was supposedly especially impressed with Yasuke’s sheer size and reported strength, which was alleged as being equal to that of 10 men.
Oda was so impressed and fascinated with Yasuke, in fact, that he took him under his wing, seeing him as a potentially powerful ally. Although it is unclear just how he went about it, Oda managed to release Yasuke from his servitude to the Jesuits, and although Yasuke was a stranger in a strange land, unable to communicate with his new company and unversed in their ways, he was to become far from a mere curiosity. Indeed, he was given vast sums of money, a residence of his own, and was treated far more as a human being than he ever had before, not a slave, but rather accepted into their society, with Oda’s protection constantly hanging over him. Yasuke became a constant presence beside the powerful warlord, acting as a retainer, bodyguard, and weapons bearer, and people were known to bow down before him. Yasuke would also take part in playful sumo matches, where he would defeat all comers, such was his size and strength, giving him an almost legendary air about him.
As Yasuke became more fluent in Japanese and learned their ways he became even more trusted and valued, until he regularly held a seat beside the daimyō himself, becoming an advisor to the warlord. Oda was said to be quite fond of talking with Yasuke, and the two seemed to be practically inseparable at times, with Yasuke widely regarded today as the only foreigner Oda Nobunaga ever had in his service to any capacity. As a matter of fact, Oda often had Yasuke dine with him, which was a privilege even his most trusted advisors and highest ranking samurai often did not have. After about a year of this, Oda would go on to actually make Yasuke a full fledged samurai, and he was gifted his own katana sword. It is important to remember that this was not some cheap knock-off or trinket, and that at the time these were priceless, masterfully crafted artifacts that most Japanese never had a hope of obtaining, so for a foreigner to do so was very odd indeed. Yasuke had gone from poor slave to one of the Japanese elite.
Yasuke would move on to join Oda in battle campaigns, his right hand man, proving to be a fierce warrior on the battlefield, which only increased his clout and the fear he induced. Indeed, Yasuke’s name began to be whispered among the frightened enemy clans, who spoke of the black samurai as if he were some sort of boogieman. The legend of the “Black Samurai” would rise from there, but it was to be ultimately short-lived. Oda Nobunaga was eventually betrayed by one of his associates named Akechi Mitsuhide, who beseiged his castle, and after an all out battle in which Yasuke played no small part the daimyō was left with no other choice in the face of defeat but to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.
Yasuke himself apparently managed to escape and pledge his allegiance to Oda’s heir, Oda Nobutada. He went on to fight valiantly, but would later be captured by Akechi. Unfortunately for him, his standing among the populace had rested largely on Oda’s favor, and his new captors were not as enamored with him as Oda had been. Of course he was considered a formidable enemy and warrior, but he was also labelled as an abomination and “an animal,” more for his refusing to commit seppuku like his master rather than his appearance. Rather than kill him, Akechi deemed him not worthy of being a samurai, and returned Yasuke to the Jesuits in Kyoto, with life being considered more shameful than death, and where he supposedly remained for the rest of his days. It is uncertain just what happened to the once great Black Samurai after this, and he basically faded into obscurity.
In recent years, the tale of Yasuke was given an injection of popularity with the release of the historical children’s fiction book Kuro-Suke, which won the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969. His story has also gained attention in the west, with the manga called “Afro Samurai,” loosely based on Yasuke’s story, as well as a Hollywood movie in the pipeline being released by Lionsgate Films. In the end, it is a very intriguing story of a stranger in a strange land, a historical oddity that really stands out considering the pure exclusiveness inherit to Japan in the era. Whatever happened to Yasuke in his later years, his is a story of overcoming all odds, and who doesn’t love a story of a foreign samurai? It is remarkable that in that era of total isolation and xenophobia that a slave from Africa was able to launch up to a Japanese daimyō’s most trusted adviser, attain the status of samurai, and become a part of the upper echelons of Japanese society, and it is certainly an odd, inspirational, and cool little historical oddity, to say the least.