Yasuke – The Real Life Afro-Samurai

400 years ago in Japan, on March 23, 1581, foreigners in large black ships came from a far-off land, seeking to convert the Japanese natives to their religion, along with them was a black page in their employ. The strange imposing foreigner, standing 6’2 ft. (188 cm) with skin as ‘black as charcoal’, on his arrival to the capital quickly garnered a lot of interest from the locals, including that of a legendary warlord, Oda Nobunaga, who had him summoned. Skeptical of his skin color, the Nobunaga had him stripped and made his servants scrub the ‘black ink’ off his skin. Realizing, he was not colored and in fact black, Nobunaga become intrigued and soon had him enter into his service. Oda named him Yasuke, likely a Japanized version of his original or Christian name.

As the Daimyo’s vassal, he quickly rose through the ranks within a year, first becoming his bodyguard and then officially a samurai, the first foreigner to do so from outside of East Asia. As the only non-Japanese retainer that Nobunaga had in his service, the warlord grew fond of Yasuke and enjoyed talking with him. As a favored vassal, Yasuke was granted a number of privileges, including his own private residence, a ceremonial katana sword given to him by Oda and the pleasure of dining with the Daimyo, of which few were privy to. Nobunaga also assigned him as his weapon bearer. Yasuke was noted for his prowess in the battlefield, with even Oda praising his strength, describing it as ‘that of ten normal men’.

In June 1582, Oda was betrayed by one of his general Akechi Mitsuhide and committed seppuku while his loyal retainers, including Yasuke, fought to defend him. As Honnō-ji temple burned around Oda Nobunaga’s body, Yasuke swore his allegiance to his son, Nobutada and helped rally the loyalists at Nijō Castle. He was ultimately captured by the enemy and was presented to Akechi, who insulted him, calling him an animal and a barbarian but nonetheless, decided to spare his life and ordered him to be banished to the Nanban-ji, the name for the Jesuit Missionary church present in Kyoto. Records of his later life fall into obscurity.

Yasuke was featured as the main protagonist in the children’s historical fiction novel, Kuro-suke,  which received the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969.

A. R. Usmani

Historian | Researcher | Likes to live in the past because housing is much cheaper

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