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Yasuke, the Black Samurai


Yasuke, the African samurai, is a topic previously discussed on Black Tokyo. For a little background on the the  children’s book, Kurosuke, which is based on the tales of Yasuke, the following is provided:


“Historical stories for children as a genre was established after 1960s. Kuro-suke, by Kurusu Yoshio (1916 – 2001), is masterpiece about a black young man and the Honnôji Revolt, and is one of the works that contributed to the development of the historical genre.

In the late sixteenth century, when Oda Nobunaga is holding sway over Japan, a black young man is sent to Nobunaga as a gift from a missionary. Japanese people at that time do not know about black people, and they are very surprised. The young man is named Kurusan Yasuke, or Kuro-suke, and is made an attendant of Nobunaga and the household members come to be fond of him.”

Contemporary accounts report that Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579 in the service of the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who had been appointed the Visitor (inspector) of the Jesuit missions in the Indies, meaning East Africa, South and East Asia. He accompanied Valignano when the latter came to the capital area in March 1581 and caused something of a sensation.

“However, a year after Yasuke’s arrival in Nobunaga’s court, disaster struck. In June 1582 Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his closest generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Akechi’s betrayal is still the subject of debate but it is likely that he acted out of the fear that Nobunaga was going to give his (Akechi’s) lands to Mori Ranmaru, with whom Nobunaga was engaged in a ritual homosexual relationship (common among the samurai classes and part of system of patronage). Nobunaga and his small retinue, including Yasuke, were besieged in Honno-Ji temple in Kyoto by Akechi’s army. Whilst the temple burned Nobunaga committed ritual suicide. Yasuke managed to fight his way out and fled to the nearby Azuchi castle with Nobunaga’s eldest son, Oda Nobutada.

With Nobunaga out of the way Akechi attacked the castle and Yasuke is reported to have personally committed himself to the fighting. However, the defenders were soon overwhelmed. Yasuke survived the battle but, rather than commit suicide (the samurai tradition when facing defeat) he handed his sword to Akechi’s men (the Western tradition). Unsure of how to proceed the soldiers deferred to their lord. Akechi proved somewhat more bigoted than Nobunaga when he replied that Yasuke was merely a beast and not true samurai and, therefore, could not be expected to know the honour of seppuku (ritual suicide). Akechi handed Yasuke back to the Jesuits in Kyoto who were reportedly relieved to see him still in one piece.”

The idea of a black man working for Nobunaga is quite unique. Kuro-suke’s effort as a man of Nobunaga is a bit odd and humorous, and his fate is painful. The mind of a young man in a foreign country is well described. Lively characters and the setting in Azuchi, where European culture could be seen, are attractive, too. Illustrations by Minoda Genjirô enrich the world of this story.

Kuro-suke was praised for its originality and high quality when it received the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969.”

The Daily Beagle’s story on “YASUKE: THE AFRICAN SAMURAI” provides the following:

Japan is not a place one would usually associate with immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean. Yet in the late 16th century Japan’s most powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga, had a black page who was not only a cultural curiosity but also served as Nobunaga’s bodyguard and was granted the prestigious rank of Samurai. We do not know this slave’s actual name but the Japanese called him Yasuke (彌介), the reason for this name is unknown as it does not have a clear meaning and that it is most likely a “Japanization” of his actual name.

“He was apparently 6ft 2in and would have towered over the Japanese of the day. Nobunaga first heard of Yasuke when the  news reached him in 1581 of the great crush that had occurred when Valignano had brought him to Kyoto where his skin colour and height attracted a huge crowd. Nobunaga ordered the Jesuit to bring Yasuke to his court so that he could see this sensation in the flesh.

Upon seeing Yasuke Nobunaga allegedly ordered his stripped to the waist and scrubbed believing that his skin was painted. Japanese sources described Yasuke as “looking between the age of 24 or 25, black like an ox, healthy and good looking, and possessing the strength of 10 men. Nobunaga was further intrigued by the fact that Yasuke could speak Japanese (albeit not perfectly) and ordered Valignano to leave Yasuke in his care when the Jesuit prepared to leave again. Yasuke became a permanent fixture in Nobunaga’s retinue, his size and strength acting as a deterrent to assassination not to mention a flavour of exoticism to accompany the warlord’s other Western possessions. Apparently Nobunaga became so fond of Yasuke that rumours abounded that the slave was going to be made a Daimyo (a Japanese land-owning lord). These rumours were proven wrong, however, Yasuke was given the honour of being made a member of the samurai class, a rare honour among foreigners. ”
Read more here.

Additional information can be found here.

Black Tokyo recommends the following scholarly papers if you are interested in learning about Japan from a different perspective:

  • The Critical Reception of James Baldwin in Japan: An Annotated Bibliography by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Toru Kiuchi (1991)
  • The Significance of Afrocentricity for Non-Africans: Examination of the Relationship between African Americans and the Japanese by Suzuko Morikawa (2001)
  • The Convenient Scapegoating of Blacks in Postwar Japan: Shaping the Black Experience Abroad by Sherick A. Hughes (2003)
  • Lighter than Yellow, but not Enough: Western Discourse on the Japanese Race, 1854-1904 by Rotem Kowner (2000)
  • Race and Reflexivity: The Black Other in Contemporary Japanese Mass Culture by John Russell (1991)
  • Black Scholars Who Make a Specialty of Asian Studies by Robert Fikes, Jr. (2002) (ref. source of info.)

Read additional information on Black scholars the focus on Asian studies here.

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