The Amazing Story of Yasuke: The Forgotten African Samurai

The Amazing Story of Yasuke: The Forgotten African Samurai

(Read the article on one page)

Samurai are among the most enduring symbols of Japanese cultural heritage, thus unsurprisingly, most samurai were Japanese. There are, however, examples of non-Japanese who became samurai as well. The most famous western example is the English sailor William Adams (1564-1620) who came to Japan in 1600 and was able to rise through the ranks to eventually become a samurai. But one of the most surprising examples would probably be an African by the name of Yasuke who was made a samurai by the Japanese Daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) after taking on the role of his body guard. Yasuke was brought to Japan in 1579 by Jesuit missionaries and gained the attention and interest of the Japanese nobleman.

Yasuke’s Rise as a Samurai

Yasuke’s origins are shrouded in mystery.  He was probably born between 1555 and 1566, but even that is not certain. Historians are not even sure of the origin of his name, though it is most likely the Japanese form of his original name. According to one source, he may have been a Makua from Mozambique. It has also been suggested that he was from Angola or Ethiopia. Additionally, he may have been a European-born slave from Portugal.

Whatever his origin, Yasuke first appears in history in 1579 as an attendant of the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano coming to Japan to visit the missions that had been set up there. Yasuke was most likely a slave. Yasuke’s black skin generated a lot of interest from the native Japanese and many are said to have come to see him at the church which the Jesuits had constructed in Kyoto. This commotion caught the interest of the Daimyo, Lord Nobunaga, who asked for an audience with him.

17th century Japanese painting depicting a group of Portuguese foreigners.

17th century Japanese painting depicting a group of Portuguese foreigners. ( Public Domain )

Nobunaga apparently was skeptical that Yasuke’s black skin was genuine and had him remove his shirt and rub his skin to show that it wasn’t ink. Nobunaga was nonetheless impressed by Yasuke’s height. He is recorded to have been over 6 feet (182cm) tall in an era where most Japanese men were closer to 5 feet (152 cm) tall. This height would have made him very imposing to most indigenous inhabitants of the islands.

Nobunaga soon made Yasuke his retainer and body guard. He was eventually made a samurai in 1581 and stationed at Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle. After this, Nobunaga would invite Yasuke to dine at his table, an unusual privilege even for a samurai. He was also made the Daimyo’s sword bearer with his own katana. During this time, he learned to speak Japanese fluently as well.

An artist's illustration of Yasuke the samurai.

An artist's illustration of Yasuke the samurai. ( Public Domain )

The End of His Samurai Career

Yasuke’s career as a samurai would not last long. In 1582, Nobunaga’s general, Mitsuhide, started a coup to overthrow him. Mitsuhide stormed the temple where Nobunaga was staying in Kyoto. Nobunaga, convinced of his imminent defeat at the hands of his treacherous general, committed Seppuku, ritual suicide. After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke fled to back to the Azuchi castle and entered the service of his son Odo Nobutada. His son however also committed suicide after suffering defeat at the hands of Mitsuhide.

An imagined portrait of Oda Nobunaga, by Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolò, 1583–1590.

An imagined portrait of Oda Nobunaga, by Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolò, 1583–1590. ( Public Domain )

Mitsuhide was not very impressed with Yasuke and dismissed him as “a beast” and not a true samurai. The reason for this was that rather than committing honor suicide, the norm after defeat in Japanese culture, Yasuke apparently offered his sword to Mitsuhide following Western custom. It was undoubtedly because of this rejection that Yasuke returned to the service of Valignano and soon returned to obscurity. The Jesuits, however, were glad to see that he had survived and thanked God for his return.   

African-Japanese Contact

There is little indisputable evidence for an African presence in Japan before Yasuke, though there are some interesting historical examples which suggest the possibility of African-Japanese contact. There is a Japanese proverb which says “For a Samurai to be brave, he must have a bit of black blood.” It is uncertain of course whether this is referring to people with dark skin or some other meaning of the word black. It is possible that the expression “black blood” could be completely unrelated to someone who is of Black African descent and have had a very different meaning in ancient Japanese culture.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch’ (1892) by Paul Gauguin.
A belief in ghosts is held by many cultures (both modern and ancient) around the world. Some of these ghost beliefs are well-known, whilst others, such as those held by the Polynesians, are less so. In terms of geography, Polynesia covers a large area in the central and southern parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Myths & Legends

An image of Enki from the Adda cylinder seal.
In the belief system of the Sumerians, Enki (known also as Ea by the Akkadians and Babylonians) was regarded to be one of the most important deities. Originally Enki was worshipped as a god of fresh water and served as the patron deity of the city of Eridu (which the ancient Mesopotamians believe was the first city to have been established in the world). Over time, however, Enki’s influence grew and this deity was considered to have power over many other aspects of life, including trickery and mischief, magic, creation, fertility, and intelligence.

Human Origins

Detail of ‘God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars’ by Jan Brueghel the Younger.
Although most mainstream scientists and most of the developed world now accept the theory of evolution and the scientifically established age of Earth and the universe, there is still a group of people that resist the status quo and insist, based on a particular literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in the Hebrew Bible

Ancient Technology

Representation of an ancient Egyptian chariot.
The wheel can be considered mankind’s most important invention, the utility of which is still applied in multiple spheres of our daily life. While most other inventions have been derived from nature itself, the wheel is 100% a product of human imagination. Even today, it would be difficult to imagine what it would be like without wheels, since movement as we know it would be undeniably impossible.

Opinion

El Caracol Observatory at Chichen Itza (Wright Reading/CC BY-NC 2.0) and Composite 3D laser scan image of El Caracol from above
In 1526, the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and found most of the great Maya cities deeply eroded and unoccupied. Many generations removed from the master builders, engineers, and scientists who conceived and built the cities, the remaining Maya they encountered had degenerated into waring groups who practiced blood rituals and human sacrifice.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article