Remember when as kids, we’d play with sticks and call them swords and ourselves, samurai? The Saturday morning cartoon show Samurai Jack further served as a muse turning every child within a five block radius into a turbocharged stick wielding menace. As we grew older however, we came to understand that samurai were indeed actual people and not fictitious characters as portrayed in kid’s shows. This, along with the fact that, they were highly trained in the art of combat and thus accorded outmost respect in Japanese society.
Native to Japan of course, the way of the samurai was a closely guarded tradition and only a fraction of the population could truly become samurai. At its core, was a warrior’s spirit and a deep sense of patriotism. It is as a result of such a rare cocktail of personal traits that samurai were not only considered military, but nobility as well. This is further cemented by their relentless pursuit of both literary and martial arts.
It hence follows, samurai were in the service of the rulers at the time –daimiyo (warlords) and therefore, enjoyed certain privileges such as owning land.
Close knit societies with deep rooted culture, customs and traditions like the Japanese would naturally, be last to assimilate or at the very least, tolerate foreigners weaseling into their way of life. This, was for the first time in Japanese history, about to change!
In the summer of 1579, a man, built like a wall, dark in complexion with kinky locks and inches taller than the natives, landed on the shores of Japan in the service of a Jesuit missionary-Alessandro Valignano. Though accounts differ on the exact country this mysterious man hailed from, it is certain that he came from Africa. The pool of possible nations of origin include, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sudan.
In 1581, the bantu man alongside Alessandro Valignano set foot in Japan’s capital and booming metropolis, also serving as headquarters of the then daimiyo, Oda Nobunaga. It was here that accounts describe multitudes of people from far and wide coming to witness the tall, strong. dark skinned man.
So strange was this man, that natives likened him to a deity and once broke down the gates of a missionary church to catch a glimpse of him. Oda Nobunaga upon seeing this wonder of a man himself, ordered that he strip down and wash off the dark ink from his skin convinced that he might have been a missionary playing a joke. Much to his surprise, no ink came off nor did the skin tone change in the slightest.
Genuinely intrigued by this enigma of a man, Nobunaga quickly took an appreciation for his integrity, but of more significance perhaps, his physical prowess even openly stating that he possessed the strength of ten men! It was with this royal decree that he entered into Nobunaga’s service effectively becoming a samurai. The mysterious bantu man was even accorded a name, Yasuke!
Other than a piece of land and a house upon it, Yasuke like other samurai, was afforded two blades. A long sword- (katana) and another short ceremonial sword. In addition to this, logic dictated that Yasuke learnt how to not only fight, but carry himself honorably and diligently as thousands of samurai did before him.
Through the ranks he rose quickly and soon enough, Yasuke was Oda Nobunaga’s closest companion. He even had the rare privilege of dining with the warlord, a fete even native allies were yet to achieve.
It is recorded, Yasuke rode with Oda Nobunaga into battle and unleashed his ferocity and raw strength, laying waste to all who stood up to the tower of a man relative to the native’s short build. More to this, it was custom for Yasuke to ride alongside his master Oda Nobunaga as he surveyed newly conquered lands. A position of envy to many of Oda’s subordinates. Worse still, occupied by a foreigner. This was not going to last long howeve
In 1582, on their way back from conquest, Nobunaga famously split his army and sent them forward to scour the area for new lands to conquer while he rested in a temple nearby. A surprise attack was launched and Nobunaga’s remaining forces were quickly overpowered. To avoid capture, Nobunaga was forced to commit ritualistic suicide (sepeku).
In the midst of the chaos, Yasuke saw the futility of the fight and rode ahead to secure Nobunaga’s heir, Oda Nobutada. Despite waging a defense fit for the history books and Yaskue’s best efforts, the young prince’s armies were overwhelmed and he too was forced to commit sepeku.
In the same breath, Yasuke was captured and was quickly banished owing to him not being native Japanese. He was sent to back to the Jesuit Missionary Church where he was met with his former master Alessandro Valignano who sang and rejoiced upon his safe return.
It is at this point unfortunately, that all records of Yasuke were either lost to history or destroyed by the reigning daimyo. Nobody quite knows his fate after he met with his Jesuit masters. Might he have set sail back to Africa? might he have died in Japan?
In spite of this, one thing is certain, the life of Yasuke, the African slave cum Samurai is far out of the realm of ordinary and by this fact, he has been cemented into Japanese history and now, popular culture as adaptations and depictions of the legendary black samurai continue to captivate the masses.
Just this year in fact, Netflix released a well-received animated series by the same name- Yasuke! Further acknowledging the first ever, African man to attain samurai status in Japan!