Venerable African Samurai Yasuke to Help the Great Unifier of Japan

Yasuke is a samurai anime series that has been available on Netflix since last month. The story takes place in the middle of the Warring States period (1467–1615), based on actual events of a man from Africa who plays an active role as a samurai. Yasuke trained and was under the command of Nobunaga Oda, who was the most powerful warlord of the day. The Yasuke story tells us something more important than history, which tells us about the importance of Bias-Free communication.

Yasuke’s height is 182 cm/6 feet, Nobunaga’s is 166-169 cm/5′6 feet. Nobunaga must have admired Yasuke’s physical capabilities.
Nanban byōbu, Kano Naizen (1570-1616) at Kobe City Museum

In July 1581, the Italian missionary Gnecchi-Soldo Organtino visited Nobunaga in Kyoto, accompanied by an African man that one of them later named Yasuke. Luís Fróis(1532 – 1597), a Portuguese Catholic priest and missionary, reported that Yasuke understood some Japanese. So Nobunaga never got tired of talking to him as Yasuke was energetic and could perform a number of arts. Nobunaga was very pleased to take Yasuke under his wing and let Yasuke ramble the streets of Kyoto with an escort. The venerable African samurai’s country of origin, ethnicity, and native language are not clearly known, but his age at the time is believed in his early twenties. Scholars were certain that Yasuke had African roots. Some believe that he is from what is now known as Mozambique, but others were not so sure.

Yasuke’s story appeared in the children’s book Kuro-suke. After Nobunaga killed himself, Yasuke was sent to the Namban temple. The end of the story is when Yasuke sleeps that night, he dreams of his parents in Africa. Yasuke cries silently. Kuro-suke, author Kurusu Yoshio, Iwasaki Shoten, 1968 International Institute for Children’s Literature, Osaka

It seems that the Japanese people of the Edo period looked at Yasuke with relatively innocently and simple curiosity. Yasuke clearly looked different and had unique abilities different from their own.

The African warrior with the strength of ten men

Yasuke served as Nobunaga’s sword-bearer, always close at hand. Yasuke was presented with a decorated dagger by Nobunaga. The intricate swords and daggers have enormous importance for the Japanese samurai, arguably more important than their own souls. Yasuke was also given a salary and even a private residence on the grounds of Azuchi Castle. Sometimes he walked around Azuchi Castle with his followers. Everybody in the castle knew Yasuke was Nobunaga’s favorite samurai and it was rumored that he would eventually become a lord of someplace in Japan.

Yasuke served Nobunaga for a short period, less than a year and a half, but he was a loyal samurai of the Oda family. He was an important warrior who fought hard to protect Nobunaga in the most famous incident in Japanese history called the Honnoji Incident. The assassination of Nobunaga occurred at Honnoji Temple in Kyoto in June 1582, Mitsuhide Akechi was one of Nobunaga’s trusted vassals, betraying his lord.

Yasuke fought to the bitter end of the incident. Even though he was not Japanese, Yasuke possessed the heart of a true samurai. Somehow after the battle, the badly hurt Yasuke did not die. His whereabouts afterwards were unknown.

The Man Had a True Samurai Spirit

Two years later, a person who might be Yasuke appears on the battlefield of Okitanawate in 1584. The war was fought between the combined forces of the Shimazu and Arima clans, and the Ryūzōji army in the area which is now known as Nagasaki. An African man, believed to be Yasuke, was seen operating two European cannons to attack the enemy troops. These foreign cannons could not be typically operated by the Japanese clans. Whether this person was Yasuke or not, there is no concrete or subsequent record of him.

Did Yasuke stay in Japan and live somewhere else with someone else? Or did he take a ship to another country? 

empty room

In Nobunaga’s time, the world was perceived as centered on Japan, an island nation with very little interaction with foreign countries. Thus, the idea of “white supremacy” was unknown to Japan. In this regard, it can be said that the warlords of the Sengoku period were not aware of foreign countries and did not have a clear sense of racial bias among them. This is why Nobunaga evaluated Yasuke as a person with an impartial eye and gave him the rank of superior samurai.

We all have biases, and it’s really difficult to be truly free of inherited racial, gender, or sexual orientation biases. But we need to try to be a less biased version of ourselves, like Nobunaga & Yasuke.

Reference

  • African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan by Geoffrey Girard, Thomas Lockley
  • 『信長公記(下)』太田牛一原著、榊原潤訳
  • アフリカ「発見」 日本におけるアフリカ像の変遷 藤田みどり著
  • くろ助 来栖良夫 岩崎書店 1968年
  • The psycho- historical background of Japanese concerning ethnic stereotypes towards Westerners and Blacks -An analysis based on letters and reports on Japan by JesusSocieties.- Tomohide BANZAl

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