In the 16th century, a young African man was captured and sold into slavery, embarking on an extraordinary journey that would take him across oceans and continents. This man, now known as Yasuke, went on to break barriers and make history as the first foreign-born warrior to become a samurai in Japan.
A Fateful Voyage
Around 1579, Yasuke was trafficked from Africa to India as a slave. He was purchased by an Italian Jesuit missionary named Alessandro Valignano, who employed him essentially as a bodyguard. Missionaries were forbidden from taking up arms, but needed protection while traveling. The imposing Yasuke, described as having the strength of ten men, was the perfect fit.
Valignano was on his way to Japan, so Yasuke accompanied him on the long sea voyage. After stopping in several ports along the way, they landed in Japan in 1579, arriving in Kuchinotsu in southern Japan. From there, they made their way to Kyoto, the capital at that time.
A Black Man in White Japan
As Yasuke traveled to Kyoto with Valignano, locals flocked to catch a glimpse of the tall, muscular African. With his black skin and commanding presence, he stood out dramatically in a country that had virtually no diversity. Some people thought he had been painted black and tried to rub the color off!
Yasuke caused a huge sensation across Japan. Due to the country’s isolationist policies, very few foreigners had ever stepped foot there. Some people even believed Yasuke was a demon. But this mythic aura only added to the intrigue surrounding him.
Before the Great Lord Nobunaga
In 1581, Valignano was granted an audience with Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful warlords in Japan. Nobunaga controlled half of Japan and was known as the “Great Unifier” for his conquests.
When Nobunaga met Yasuke, he was instantly fascinated by his appearance and even ordered him to remove his clothes and scrub his skin to test if the blackness would wash off. Of course, it did not. Nobunaga was so impressed by Yasuke’s strength and exotic nature that he threw a feast in his honor.
Soon after, Yasuke made the momentous decision to enter Nobunaga’s service on his own, separating from Valignano to become a warrior.
A Black Samurai Rises
Yasuke quickly gained Nobunaga’s trust and joined his inner circle of elite warriors. He guarded Nobunaga closely and accompanied him on military campaigns around Japan. Yasuke also likely received training in martial arts and the way of the samurai.
In 1582, two events cemented Yasuke’s legacy. First, Nobunaga granted Yasuke the high rank of samurai – an almost unheard-of honor for a foreigner. As the first non-Japanese samurai, Yasuke broke barriers and served as an inspiration.
Second, he fought bravely during the Honnō-ji Incident, where Nobunaga was betrayed and forced to commit ritual suicide. Yasuke fought against impossible odds to protect his lord and was one of the few survivors.
No records indicate what became of Yasuke after Nobunaga’s death. But the extraordinary life of this African slave-turned-samurai illustrates the heights that determination and courage can achieve, no matter one’s origins. Yasuke’s valor made him a legend in life, and in death, he remains one of history’s most fascinating figures.