Sumō yūrakuzu byōbu, Detail: A black man wrestling with Japanese. This is a possible artwork depicting Yasuke, circa 1605.

Yasuke: The African Warrior of Japan

Yasuke is known to be the first African warrior in Japan to reach the rank of samurai under the 16th Century Japanese feudal lord, Oda Nobunaga.

Christianity was introduced by the missionary Francis Xavier during the Sengoku period, “Warring States Period” (15th – 17th century). It was a time of social upheaval among Japanese warlords.

After almost a century of political instability and warfare in Japan, the Edo Bafuku, also known as the  Tokugawa bakufu (徳川幕府) or Tokugawa shogunate, was preceded by the Sengoku period.Japanese painting depicting a group of Portuguese Nanban foreigners who arrived in Japan (17th century). People from Africa were shipmates, slaves or servants on Portuguese ships during the Nanban trade.

Japanese painting depicting a group of Portuguese Nanban foreigners who arrived in Japan (17th century). People from Africa were shipmates, slaves or servants on Portuguese ships during the Nanban trade.

It was the last feudal Japanese military government that ruled over Japan from 1603 through 1868. During this period Japan adopted a policy, “Sakoku,” that isolated the whole country from the outside world. Three samurai from central Honshu, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu are credited for unifying the country and are called throughout history as the Three Great Unifiers of Japan.

In 1579, a Jesuit missionary  Alessandro Valignano had several Africans that came along with him on his missions to the Indies during the Nanban trade, one of whom was Yasuke. He is known to have served as a retainer or kashin, under Oda Nobunaga.

Arrival in Japan

In March of 1581, Yasuke’s appearance caused quite a stir amongst the locals of the capital where he was presented to Oda Nobunaga who thought his skin was colored with black ink.  The daimyo reportedly had Yasuke stripped of clothing from the waist up and was ordered to scrub his skin. These events were recorded in the 1582 Annual Report of the Jesuit Mission in Japan the Jesuit Luís Fróis and was published in Cartas que os padres e irmãos da Companhia de Jesus escreverão dos reynos de Japão e China II (1598).

Nobunaga, upon realizing Yasuke’s skin was indeed black, took a personal interest in him.  It is also recorded in Lord Nobunaga Chronicle (Shinchō Kōki), a black page (kuro-bōzu) from the Christian countries, healthy with a good demeanor, was praised for his strength by Nobunaga.  At some point, Yasuke entered into Nobunaga’s service.

Sumō yūrakuzu byōbu, Detail: A black man wrestling with Japanese. This is a possible artwork depicting Yasuke, circa 1605.

Sumō yūrakuzu byōbu, Detail: A black man wrestling with Japanese. This is a possible artwork depicting Yasuke, circa 1605.

It is also likely that Yasuke could speak or was taught the Japanese language through the efforts of the Christian missionaries to ensure that they adapted well to the local culture. Nobunaga is said to enjoy conversing with Yasuke and he was the only known non-Japanese retainer in the service of the daimyo.

During the attack on Nobunaga in June of 1582, by the army of Akechi Mitsuhide, the daimyo was forced to commit seppuku in Honnō-ji, in Kyoto. Yasuke is known to have fought alongside Nobunaga’s forces. After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined the daimyo’s heir, Oda Nobutada and fought for him as well. When his side was captured by Akechi’s forces and was presented to him, Yasuka was called a non-Japanese animal and should not be killed, rather should be taken to the Nanbanji, the Christian church in Kyoto. There are no further written documentation on the fate of Yasuke after this.