Meet Yasuke, Japan’s First Black Samurai Warrior

“His name was Yasuke. His height was 6 shaku 2 sun” — rough­ly six feet, two inch­es — “he was black, and his skin was like char­coal.” Those words come from the 16th-cen­tu­ry samu­rai Mat­su­daira Ieta­da, and they describe one of his col­leagues. Though we don’t know much detail about his life itself, we do know that there once lived a black samu­rai called Yasuke, a ver­sion of the name he had in Africa, prob­a­bly the then Por­tuguese Mozam­bique. Brought to Japan in 1579 by an Ital­ian Jesuit named Alessan­dro Valig­nano on a mis­sion-inspec­tion tour, Yasuke’s appear­ance in the cap­i­tal drew so much atten­tion that thrilled onlook­ers clam­bered over one anoth­er to get so much as a glimpse at this strange vis­i­tor with his unfath­omable stature and skin tone.

“His celebri­ty sta­tus soon piqued the curios­i­ty of Oda Nobuna­ga, a medieval Japan­ese war­lord who was striv­ing to uni­fy Japan and bring peace to a coun­try racked by civ­il war,” writes Ozy’s Leslie Nguyen-Okwu. “Nobuna­ga praised Yasuke’s strength and stature, describ­ing ‘his might as that of 10 men,’ and brought him on as his feu­dal body­guard.”

As many for­eign­ers in Japan still dis­cov­er today, the for­eign­er’s out­sider sta­tus there also has its ben­e­fits: “Nobuna­ga grew fond of Yasuke and treat­ed him like fam­i­ly as he earned his worth on the bat­tle­field and on patrol at Azuchi Cas­tle. In less than a year, Yasuke went from being a low­ly page to join­ing the upper ech­e­lons of Japan’s war­rior class, the samu­rai. Before long, Yasuke was speak­ing Japan­ese flu­ent­ly and rid­ing along­side Nobuna­ga in bat­tle.”

The leg­end of Yasuke ends soon after, in 1582, with Nobuna­ga’s fall at the hands of one of his own gen­er­als. That result­ed in the first and only black samu­rai’s exile, prob­a­bly to a Jesuit mis­sion in Kyoto, but Yasuke has lived on in the imag­i­na­tions of the last few gen­er­a­tions of Japan­ese read­ers, all of whom grew up with the award-win­ning chil­dren’s book Kuro-suke (kuro mean­ing “black” in Japan­ese) by Kurusu Yoshio. This illus­trat­ed ver­sion of Yasuke’s life sto­ry, though told with humor, ends, accord­ing to a site about the book, on a bit­ter­sweet note: the defeat­ed “Nobuna­ga kills him­self, and Kuro-suke is saved and sent to Nam­ban tem­ple. When he sleeps that night, he dreams of his par­ents in Africa. Kuro-suke cries silent­ly.”

What the sto­ry of Yasuke lacks in thor­ough his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion (though you can see a fair few pieces briefly cit­ed on the site of this doc­u­men­tary project) it more than makes up in fas­ci­na­tion, and some­how Hol­ly­wood, near­ly fif­teen years after Tom Cruise’s high-pro­file turn as a white samu­rai, has only just awok­en to its poten­tial. In March,  Hol­ly­wood Reporter announced that the film stu­dio Lion­s­gate “has tapped High­lander cre­ator Gre­go­ry Widen to script Black Samu­rai,” a “peri­od action dra­ma” based on the Yasuke leg­end. Widen’s con­sid­er­able expe­ri­ence in the out­sider-with-sword genre makes him an under­stand­able choice, but one has to won­der — should­n’t Quentin Taran­ti­no’s phone be ring­ing off the hook right about now?

via Ozy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Female Samu­rai War­riors Immor­tal­ized in 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Pho­tos

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

Leg­endary Japan­ese Author Yukio Mishi­ma Mus­es About the Samu­rai Code (Which Inspired His Hap­less 1970 Coup Attempt)

A Hyp­not­ic Look at How Japan­ese Samu­rai Swords Are Made

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.