Sun. Jun 9th, 2024
Yasuke The African Samurai in JapanYasuke The African Samurai in Japan

The True Story of Yasuke, the Legendary Black Samurai

BY Kat Moon source

In 1579, an African man now known by the name of Yasuke arrived in Japan. Much about him remains a mystery: it’s unconfirmed which country in Africa he hailed from, and there is no verifiable record of his life after 1582. But Yasuke was a real-life Black samurai who served under Oda Nobunaga, one of the most important feudal lords in Japanese history and a unifier of the country. He is also the inspiration for Netflix’s new anime series Yasuke—a project from creator and director LeSean Thomas and the Japanese animation studio MAPPA, executive produced by LaKeith Stanfield, who voices Yasuke, and Flying Lotus, who produced the soundtrack.

This is not the first time that Yasuke has appeared in popular culture. Author Kurusu Yoshio published the children’s book Kuro-suke about the samurai in 1968. Yasuke also showed up as a playable character in the 2017 video game Nioh. And in 2019, before Chadwick Boseman’s death, it was announced that the actor would play Yasuke in a film based on the warrior’s story.The Netflix anime series takes a new approach in telling Yasuke’s story—one that combines historical elements with fantastical components. “Animation is always the medium where you can do things that real people can’t do,” Thomas told TIME. In the show, there are plenty of giant robots, magical beasts and otherworldly fight sequences involving supernatural powers. But there are also scenes inspired by events recorded about the African samurai’s life.

One of the first scenes in the anime shows the first meeting between Nobunaga and Yasuke. After the feudal lord applauds him for winning a fight on the streets, he asks for Yasuke to be cleaned, thinking that his skin is covered in dirt. “Did you ink your skin black?” Nobunaga inquires when Yasuke’s appearance does not change. “I was born with black skin,” Yasuke responds. This interaction is not too unlike the actual initial encounter between the men. “Yasuke was brought before Nobunaga and he didn’t believe Yasuke’s true skin color was black,” said Thomas Lockley, a co-author of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan along with Geoffrey Girard. Lockley described this event from March of 1581. “[Nobunaga] ordered him scrubbed. Of course Yasuke’s skin remains intact,” he said. Nobunaga then threw a party to welcome the man into his court. According to Lockley, Yasuke entered the feudal lord’s service sometime within the next few days.

The anime series references a range of other moments documented in the life of the Black samurai who lived more than 400 years ago. Interest in Yasuke is bound to grow since, as Lockley says, he is widely regarded as the first-ever foreigner to be given warrior status in Japan. Here is the true story of Yasuke.

Who was Yasuke?

When Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579, he was with an Italian Jesuit named Alessandro Valignano. They came by way of India, and according to Lockley, Yasuke was in service to Valignano most likely as a bodyguard. “As a priest he wasn’t allowed to have any soldiers or guards,” Lockley said of the Jesuit missionary. “Euphemistically, they had valets—manservants if you’d like—who were also versed in weapons.” In 1581, Valignano headed to what was then the capital city, Kyoto, to meet with Nobunaga and request permission to leave Japan. It was on this trip that Yasuke crossed paths with the feudal lord.

Some have said that Yasuke was a slave, and Lockley acknowledges the theory but disagrees. “Personally I don’t think he was a slave in any sense of the word, I think he was a free actor,” Lockley said. The author speculates that given the circumstances of how the African man arrived at his employment with Valignano, it’s possible that Yasuke was enslaved as a child and taken from Africa to India. There, Lockley said the man could have been a military slave or an indentured soldier, but he “probably got his freedom before meeting Valignano.”

Standing at more than six feet tall and described as having the strength of 10 men, Yasuke left a strong impression on Nobunaga. “It seems like he was a confidant, Nobunaga is recorded as talking often with him,” Lockley said in a follow-up email. “He was also a weapon bearer, and probably served in some kind of bodyguard capacity.”