Yasuke, (variously rendered as 弥助 or 弥介, 彌助 or 彌介 in different sources.) (c. 1555/6-?) was a black (African, or of African origin) samurai of the Japanese hegemon and warlord Oda Nobunaga between 1581 and 1582. The name “Yasuke” was granted to him by Nobunaga, although why and when is unclear. His original name is not recorded in any known source, so it is unclear if Yasuke is a Japanese rendering of his previous name, or a wholly new name granted by his lord.
According to Histoire Ecclesiastique Des Isles Et Royaumes Du Japon, written by François Solier of the Society of Jesus in 1627, Yasuke was a Muslim from Mozambique. Solier’s account may however have been an assumption as it was written so long after the event and there is no surviving contemporary account that corroborates it. Therefore, although there is no evidence, it is also possible that he also came from Portugal, Angola or Ethiopia, and he could conceivably originally have been an African mercenary in the employ of an Indian sovereign, of which there were many at this time.
A 2013 investigation by the light entertainment television program Discovery of the World’s Mysteries (世界ふしぎ発見) suggested that Yasuke was a Makua named Yasufe. However, this was a highly journalistic investigation, the program provided little proof for their conclusions and the Makua didn’t have any significant conflict with the Portuguese based on the Island of Mozambique until 1585 He may, however, have been a member of the Yao people, who were just coming in to contact with the Portuguese at this time, which might account for his name, ‘Yao’ added to the common Japanese male name suffix of ‘suke’.
Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579 as the servant of the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who had been appointed the Visitor (inspector) of the Jesuit missions in the Indies, meaning East Africa, South and East Asia. He accompanied Valignano when the latter came to the capital area in March 1581 and caused something of a sensation. In one event, several people were crushed to death while clamouring to get a look at him, the Jesuits feared their church would be flattened but they managed to avert disaster. Nobunaga heard the noise from the temple where he was staying and expressed a desire to see him. Suspecting the black color of his skin to be black ink, Nobunaga had him strip from the waist up and made him scrub his skin. These events are recorded in a 1581 letter of the Jesuit Luis Frois to Lorenço Mexia and in the 1582 Annual Report of the Jesuit Mission in Japan, also by Frois. These were published in ‘Cartas que os padres e irmãos da Companhia de Jesus escreverão dos reynos de Japão e China II’, normally known simply as ‘Cartas’, in 1598. Satisfied that he was in fact black, Nobunaga seems to have taken a shine to him, and at some point, although when is not clear, he was either given (Japanese accounts indicate him presented to Nobunaga, although European accounts do not mention this) or allowed to enter Nobunaga’s service.
The “Lord Nobunaga Chronicle” (信長公記 Shinchōkōki) corroborates Frois’ account, and describes their meeting thus: “On the 23rd of the 2nd month [March 23, 1581], a black page (黒坊主 “kuro-bōzu”) came from the Christian countries. The man was healthy and good-looking with a good demeanour. Moreover, Nobunaga praised Yasuke’s strength, describing it as that of ten normal men. Nobunaga’s nephew, probably Tsuda Nobusumi, gave him a sum of money at this first meeting.
In May, Yasuke went with Nobunaga to his castle at Azuchi and popular rumors said he might be ennobled. The diarist Matsudaira Ietada, described him as 6 shaku 2 sun (6 ft. 2 in., or 188 cm.). He was black, and his skin was like charcoal.” If so, his tall stature would have been very imposing to the Japanese of the time, even to a tall man like Nobunaga. Matsudaira stated that he was named Yasuke.
It is likely that Yasuke could speak considerable Japanese, perhaps due to Valignano’s efforts to ensure his missionaries adapted to the local culture better, because Nobunaga enjoyed talking with him (there is no indication that Nobunaga spoke Portuguese and it is unlikely that Yasuke would have been able to communicate in classical Chinese, the oriental lingua franca of the time). He seems to have become a close retainer, and was perhaps the only non-Japanese ‘warrior’ that Nobunaga had in his retinue, which could account for his rapid rise in favour and status. Yasuke was also mentioned in the prototype of Shinchōkōki owned by Sonkeikaku Bunko (尊経閣文庫), the archives of the Maeda Clan. According to this, Yasuke was given his own residence and a short, ceremonial katana by Nobunaga. Nobunaga also assigned him the duty of weapon bearer.
In June 1582, Nobunaga was attacked and forced to seppuku in Honnō-ji in Kyoto by the army of Akechi Mitsuhide. Yasuke was also there at the time and fought the Akechi forces. Immediately after Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke went to the join Nobunaga’s heir Oda Nobutada who was trying to rally the Oda forces at Nijō Castle. Yasuke fought alongside the Nobutada’s forces for a long time but he eventually surrendered his sword to Akechi’s men. They asked Akechi himself what to do with him. Akechi said that the black man was a beast and did not know anything, and furthermore, he was not Japanese, so they should not kill him but take him to the nanban-dera or nanban-ji (南蛮寺, literally the temple of the southern barbarians, how the Japanese referred to the Jesuit church). It is said that the reason why Akechi spoke it such a manner was a form of taking pity on him, i.e. giving a clear reason why not to kill him. Black people were not in fact discriminated against in Japan at this time, in fact they were even admired, for the Buddha was often portrayed in black in Japanese temples . However, perhaps Akechi also did not want to offend the Jesuits, needing all the friends he could get at this time of political turmoil. This was much to the relief of the Jesuits there who calmed him down and thanked God for his deliverance. There is no further written information about him after this although Frois, in his ‘History of Japan, does mention a black African gunner in the service of Arima Harunobu in 1584, shortly after Yasuke’s time with Nobunaga. This is highly likely to be a different man however, and there were many Africans in the service of Japanese and European employers, as well as independently employed men, in Japan at this time.
Yasuke was featured in the children’s historical fiction novel, Kuro-suke (くろ助) by Yoshio Kurusu (1916-2001) with illustrations by Genjirou Minoda, published in 1968. It features a highly fictionalized and sympathetic account of Yasuke’s life in Japan under Nobunaga. It received the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969. He has also appeared in numerous movies and dramas about Nobunaga.
YASUKE: THE AFRICAN SAMURAI
Japan is not a place one would usually associate with immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean. Yet in the late 16th century Japan’s most powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga, had a black page who was not only a cultural curiosity but also served as Nobunaga’s bodyguard and was granted the prestigious rank of Samurai.
This was a time of incessant warfare as the Ashikaga Shogunate fell and Japan became a war-torn nation with each tribe vying for control of against rival warlords. During this time the key to supremacy lay in controlling the powerless Emperor in his court in Kyoto. In the mid 16th century this civil war was nearing its end with the arrival of the Europeans and their modern armaments, guns and cannons. With these new weapons Japan would be reunified by three warlords: Oda Nobunaga would begin the process; his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi would complete unification and Tokugawa Ieyasu would consolidate it an bring in an unprecedented 250 years of peace.
Nobunaga is himself a very interesting character. Nobunaga began life as a rather minor provincial lord until he defeated a one of Japan’s most powerful warlords of the time, Imagawa Yoshimoto, at the battle of Okehazuma (1560). Within the next 20 years Nobunaga had conquered nearly a third of Japan. Nobunaga was not only a powerful warlord but a master of strategy who pioneered the use of guns in battle. At the Battle of Nagashino, in 1575, Nobunaga managed to compensate the slow reloading time of the arquebus (an early musket) by organising his gunmen in lines of three; when one line fired the rows behind would fire giving time for the first row to reload again and so on. It is argued that Nagashino was the first “modern” battle because of Nobunaga’s ingenuity.
Nobunaga was obsessed with all things Western besides their armour and armaments and is one of the first recorded Japanese men to have worn Western clothing, use tables and chairs, and drink wine from goblets. Although it is a well known fact that Nobunaga was an atheist, his affinity with Western ways and the subsequent presence of the Jesuit missionaries in his court provoked rumours that he had converted Christianity, a label that has generally stuck in popular culture (this image of belonging to a foreign religion complements his reputation as one of the bloodiest warlords in Japanese history). However, his curiosity in the Jesuit missionaries was piqued by a black slave from Mozambique (some sources say Congo) who was the page of the Italian Visitor (inspector) of the Jesuit missions in the East, Alessandro Valignano.
We do not know this slave’s actual name but the Japanese called him Yasuke (彌介), the reason for this name is unknown as it does not have a clear meaning and that it is most likely a “Japanization” of his actual name. He was apparently 6ft 2in and would have towered over the Japanese of the day. Nobunaga first heard of Yasuke when the news reached him in 1581 of the great crush that had occurred when Valignano had brought him to Kyoto where his skin colour and height attracted a huge crowd. Nobunaga ordered the Jesuit to bring Yasuke to his court so that he could see this sensation in the flesh. Upon seeing Yasuke Nobunaga allegedly ordered his stripped to the waist and scrubbed believing that his skin was painted. Japanese sources described Yasuke as “looking between the age of 24 or 25, black like an ox, healthy and good looking, and possessing the strength of 10 men.
Nobunaga was further intrigued by the fact that Yasuke could speak Japanese (albeit not perfectly) and ordered Valignano to leave Yasuke in his care when the Jesuit prepared to leave again. Yasuke became a permanent fixture in Nobunaga’s retinue, his size and strength acting as a deterrent to assassination not to mention a flavour of exoticism to accompany the warlord’s other Western possessions. Apparently Nobunaga became so fond of Yasuke that rumours abounded that the slave was going to be made a Daimyo (a Japanese land-owning lord). These rumours were proven wrong, however, Yasuke was given the honour of being made a member of the samurai class, a rare honour among foreigners.
However, a year after Yasuke’s arrival in Nobunaga’s court, disaster struck. In June 1582 Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his closest generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Akechi’s betrayal is still the subject of debate but it is likely that he acted out of the fear that Nobunaga was going to give his (Akechi’s) lands to Mori Ranmaru, with whom Nobunaga was engaged in a ritual homosexual relationship (common among the samurai classes and part of system of patronage). Nobunaga and his small retinue, including Yasuke, were besieged in Honno-Ji temple in Kyoto by Akechi’s army. Whilst the temple burned Nobunaga committed ritual suicide. Yasuke managed to fight his way out and fled to the nearby Azuchi castle with Nobunaga’s eldest son, Oda Nobutada. With Nobunaga out of the way Akechi attacked the castle and Yasuke is reported to have personally committed himself to the fighting. However, the defenders were soon overwhelmed. Yasuke survived the battle but, rather than commit suicide (the samurai tradition when facing defeat) he handed his sword to Akechi’s men (the Western tradition). Unsure of how to proceed the soldiers deferred to their lord. Akechi proved somewhat more bigoted than Nobunaga when he replied that Yasuke was merely a beast and not true samurai and, therefore, could not be expected to know the honour of seppuku (ritual suicide). Akechi handed Yasuke back to the Jesuits in Kyoto who were reportedly relieved to see him still in one piece.
It is unknown what became of Yasuke thereafter but in the space of a year this slave from far away Africa had been elevated to the Japanese warrior class, an almost unique occurrence in history, and had been involved in an event that changed the course of Japanese history. Despite this we know almost nothing about him although in Japan he has not gone totally unnoticed, he became the subject of a children’s historical fiction called Kuro-suke (くろ助).
Akechi Mitsuhide would be dead eleven days after his betrayal and another of Nobunaga’s generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, would go on to unify Japan. Hideyoshi’s own death would plunge Japan into civil war yet again and it would be Tokugawa Ieyasu (a former ally of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi) who would establish a dynasty that would last 250 years. Tokugawa would also expel all westerners (with the exception of a small Dutch enclave at Dejima in Nagasaki) and Christianity would be outlawed until the 19th century.
A small side note: Nobunaga’s line survived into the modern era. His 17th direct descendant, Oda Nobunari is a world champion figure skater (a strange twist given Nobunaga’s bloody reputation).