442 years ago, foreigners in large ships came from a far-off land, seeking to convert the Japanese natives to their religion.
Among them was an African slave identified as Yasuke (pronounced Yas-kay) who miraculously became a samurai.
Unfortunately, that narrative is false.
What we comprehend about Yasuke is based on several credible facts, speculations, and books. In recent times, his story has been watered down to a big-dumb-African slave-trope.
Fortunately for Yasuke and the ancestors, Chicago filmmaker/historian Floyd Webb began research on a Yasuke documentary in 2016. It has helped to shift the story of the African. Based on Webb’s extensive investigation, Yasuke was a skilled warrior when he arrived in Japan.
He left East Africa, Kilwa (at the time identified as Yasufe) willingly as a teenager.
Ultimately, he became a mercenary and served the African leader Malik Ambar in India.
It is at this time he would have been in contact with the Jesuits and later venture to Japan. Yasuke’s martial arts skills, education, and intellect enabled him to become a samurai.
This slave narrative is viewed from a racially prejudiced lens.
Yasuke was introduced to Lord Oda Nobunaga in 1581, which was recorded in letters by Jesuit Luis Frois. According to Frois, the African was ordered to strip and wash, so Nobunaga could see if his skin was in fact “Black.”
According to Webb, this story is incorrect.
“They might have presented a rag to wipe his arm to see if it [Black] came off. A warrior has to consent to you undressing him and scrubbing him down. That’s a humiliating thing. I believe it’s an urban legend. It has been enhanced by the White people who have heard the story, to maintain Black people in a subservient historical position.”
Webb does not believe that a mere slave could attain the rank of samurai in feudal Japan. An average person would not have been able to meet with Nobunaga. When Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579, he accompanied Alessandro Valignano, one of the most influential Jesuits in the world. It is believed that Valignano specifically selected Yasuke from amongst the numerous African warriors in India working as mercenaries. Webb notes that Yasuke eventually obtained the distinguished status as Nobunaga’s sword-bearer and believes that Yasuke would have had a wife and child like other high-ranking samurai of that time.
Yasuke also played a significant role during the historical Honno-ji Incident in 1582, the assassination of Nobunaga, featured in the first episode of the Netflix anime.
What isn’t known is what happened to Yasuke after 1582 when he returned to the Jesuits.
The African warrior transformed to samurai has an intriguing story, and it did not start in servitude. 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.
by Clarke Illmatical
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 Issue
Yasuke is also a six-episode anime series created by LeSean Thomas, set in alternate fantastical Japan during the feudal era.
The story is about a samurai warrior of African descent who must return to his life of sword and violence in order to protect a mysterious girl from the dark forces.
Director, Writer (Executive Producer)
Composer, Co-Director, Writer (Other), Producer (Executive Producer)
Producer (Executive Producer)
Yasuke is now streaming on Netflix.