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Yasuke: The First African Samurai Who Was A Shogun Bodyguard

People | November 29, 2020

A black man wrestling with Japanese circa 1605. This is a possible artwork depicting Yasuke, but unconfirmed. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Yasuke was more than a Netflix series: He was an African slave who journeyed to Japan in the 17th century, became a samurai, and served as an elite bodyguard for a shogun. How does a man rise from slavery to such a vaunted position, especially in feudal Japan?

Yasuke's Early Life

Records from 500 years ago are pretty spotty, if not nonexistent, so we don't know the exact year of Yasuke's birth. In fact, we don't even know for sure which country he was born in, but historians believe the imposing 6'2 warrior may have hailed from either Mozambique, Nigeria, or Ethiopia. At some point in the first few decades of his life, Yasuke was probably captured and enslaved by an Italian Jesuit priest named Alessandro Valignano, but some historians believe that Yasuke was Valignano's paid manservant, more of a bodyguard. In 1579, Valignano joined a group of missionaries departing on an inspection tour of Japan, and Yasuke got his first introduction to the country where he would become a legend.

Portrait of Oda Nobunaga, late 16th century. (Kanō Sōshū/Wikimedia Commons)

The Guardian Demon

Most people in Japan had never seen a person of African descent before, so when Yasuke arrived in the country, those who laid eyes on him believed he was the living embodiment of Diakokuten, a deity depicted as a guardian demon with deep brown skin. When he was presented to Oda Nobunago, Japan's most powerful warlord and shogun, Oda believed he was meeting the guardian demon in person. He tried to rub the color off Yasuke's skin, thinking it must be paint, but after Yasuke proved to be an honest-to-God human with a different skin tone, Oda threw a great feast for him. Residents rioted in the street as they flocked to see him.

After Oda got over his initial shock, he and Yasuke developed a deep friendship. Yasuke regaled the shogun with stories about his native Africa and travels through India and made no move to convert Oda or anyone else in Japan, unlike the missionaries he'd arrived with. Oda and others also couldn't help but notice the large man's natural athleticism and strength, and within a year, Yasuke had climbed the ranks to become a samurai, something most begin training for as children. During that year, Yasuke also became fluent in Japanese.

Rinpa style ink-stone box (Suzuri-bako) from 1590s. This is a possible depiction of the African retainer, samurai Yasuke (left side). (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

A Special Favor

Oda trusted Yasuke even when he did not trust some of his own men, to the point that, during one important conversation, Oda is said to have asked Yasuke for a special favor: to behead him and deliver his head and sword to his son, should he fall in battle. Sure enough, Oda was soon betrayed by one of his longtime generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, who trapped him in a room of his palace before setting the structure on fire. As the flames drew closer, Oda disemboweled himself in ritual seppuku. True to his word, Yasuke removed the warlord's head and brought it to his son.

Following Oda's death, just three years after Yasuke's arrival in Japan, Mitsuhide ordered Yasuke into exile. Most likely, the black samurai went back to Kyoto to seek shelter in the Jesuit mission there, but after that, history lost track of Yasuke. His later years and death are unknown, but his remarkable story lives on in legend.

Tags: japan | Legends and Myth | samurais

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.