Who Was Yasuke, Japan’s First Black Samurai?

In the late 16th century, the enigmatic warrior fought alongside a feudal lord dubbed the “Great Unifier”

Illustration of a dark-skinned sumo wrestler, drawn in 1605
This 1605 drawing of a Black sumo wrestler may depict Yasuke. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

Seconds into the first episode of the Netflix anime “Yasuke,” viewers witness a massacre. Hundreds of warriors lie dead near the Honnoji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. The year is 1582, and flames envelop the area surrounding the fallen.

Inside the temple, a Black samurai named Yasuke has a tense conversation with the Japanese daimyo (warlord) Oda Nobunaga. While Nobunaga is resigned to his fate, Yasuke remains hopeful the pair can evade their enemies and live to fight another day. “All that is left for me is an honorable death,” Nobunaga tells Yasuke. The daimyo pierces a sword through his own abdomen before asking Yasuke what he’s waiting for. Letting out a loud scream, the samurai lifts his sword to decapitate Nobunaga, completing the warlord’s ritual suicide, or seppuku.

A Meiji-era depiction of the Honnoji Incident
A Meiji-era depiction of the Honnoji Incident Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Though the Netflix series introduces several mystical elements—including giant flying robots, magical armies and weaponized laser beams—the broad strokes of its depiction of the Honnoji Incident are historically accurate. Yasuke was an African warrior in the employ of Nobunaga, a powerful feudal lord known as the “Great Unifier,” during Japan’s Sengoku period. The first Black samurai, he was at Nobunaga’s side when the daimyo died; according to popular lore, Nobunaga tasked Yasuke with returning his head to his son.

Beyond his relationship with the famous warlord, Yasuke was a barrier-breaking figure in his own right. Though his life is poorly documented, his story speaks to the surprising cultural connections that existed in 16th-century Japan.

“Yasuke crossed geographic, cultural and linguistic barriers to create—whether by necessity or design—a new life in a foreign land,” says Natalia Doan, a historian at the University of Oxford.

Who was Yasuke?

Not much is known about Yasuke’s early life. Some historians speculate he was born in Mozambique, Ethiopia or Nigeria. Thomas Lockley, co-author of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan, says it’s possible Yasuke was enslaved and trafficked as a child but believes he was a free man by the time he met Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit missionary. The duo traveled from India to Japan in 1579, with Yasuke essentially serving as Valignano’s bodyguard.

Yasuke “was employed as muscle because missionaries aren’t allowed to have weapons,” Lockley says. “Japan at the time was in the middle of a brutal century of civil war, and therefore [Valignano] needed somebody to look after him.”

Alessandro Valignano (left) and Oda Nobunaga (right)
Alessandro Valignano (left) and Oda Nobunaga (right) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The civil war in question began in 1467 with the collapse of the Ashikaga shogunate, which left rival feudal lords vying for control of Japan. These clashes continued through the mid-1500s, when Nobunaga consolidated power by unifying half of the island nation under his ruthless regime.

Yasuke first crossed paths with Nobunaga in 1581, when Valignano requested permission from the warlord to leave the country—a customary practice in an era before passports, according to Lockley. Nobunaga was fascinated by the color of Yasuke’s skin, which he initially believed to be covered in black paint. As Lockley explains, the daimyo ordered Yasuke to be washed, but his skin color remained unchanged. Nobunaga threw a welcome party for his visitor, who officially entered his service soon after.

The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga, a 17th-century book written by one of Nobunaga’s followers, describes Yasuke as “[appearing] to be 26 or 27 years old. … This man looked robust and had a good demeanor. What is more, his formidable strength surpassed that of ten men.” Other chronicles characterize the samurai as an intelligent, imposing figure who stood more than six feet tall. Though Yasuke was already a skilled warrior, he likely underwent additional martial arts training upon joining Nobunaga’s army.

Circa 1605 panel painting possibly featuring Nobunaga and Yasuke
The individual in green in the third panel from left is thought to be Nobunaga; the Black sumo wrestler in the fourth panel from left may be Yasuke. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 16th-century Japan, the title of samurai spoke to rank and was loosely defined as a warrior in the service of a lord or another warrior. By 1581, Nobunaga employed thousands of samurai—yet Yasuke was the first foreign-born warrior to enter their ranks. He belonged to “the very small entourage around Nobunaga, which [was] probably around 30 to 50 [warriors], mainly young men, many of [whom were Nobunaga’s] lovers as well,” Lockley says. Traditionally, older warriors like Nobunaga, then in his early 50s, mentored younger warriors and developed sexual relationships with them. No evidence indicates that Yasuke and Nobunaga were lovers.

Though Yasuke was the only Black samurai in Nobunaga’s army, he was by no means the only African present in Japan at the time. “Several hundred African people lived in Japan during the 16th century,” says Doan. “[They] worked as interpreters, soldiers, entertainers” and more. She says that Kyoto’s Japanese residents would have been surprised by Yasuke’s “foreignness” but likely wouldn’t have exhibited prejudice based on his skin color. According to Lockley, Nobunaga was a powerful man whom few were willing to challenge, so his decision to employ Yasuke wasn’t controversial. In fact, the samurai proved to be quite popular among locals, who flocked to catch a glimpse of him.

Yasuke’s final stand

Yasuke joined Nobunaga during the last months of the feudal lord’s unification campaign. “His strategy was to impose peace by force of arms,” Lockley says. “He would quite happily wipe out 10,000 people if he thought it would forward the aims of peace.” Though Nobunaga was close to completing his goal of consolidating control of Japan, his efforts came to an abrupt close after one of his trusted generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, betrayed him.

Depiction of Nobunaga fighting during the Honnoji Incident
Depiction of Nobunaga fighting during the Honnoji Incident Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On June 21, 1582, Mitsuhide ambushed Nobunaga in Kyoto while they were en route to a battle. Mitsuhide had thousands of troops under his command; Nobunaga was accompanied by just 30 or so men from his inner circle, including Yasuke. “[Mitsuhide] brings 13,000 troops into Kyoto [and] surrounds the temple where [Nobunaga is] staying,” says Lockley. “[It’s] a foregone conclusion. It’s 13,000 against 30.”

Mitsuhide’s men slaughtered many of the soldiers in Nobunaga’s entourage during the initial ambush. Eventually, Nobunaga, Yasuke and an attendant named Mori Ranmaru—the feudal lord’s lover at the time—retreated to one of the temple’s chambers. It was here that Nobunaga performed seppuku, using a sword to slice open his abdomen before Ranmaru beheaded him. Ranmaru then also performed seppuku, asking Yasuke, in turn, to decapitate him.

“If you’re going to die anyway, you might as well die quicker, by your own hand, and retain some honor,” says Lockley. Once both Nobunaga and Ranmaru were dead, Yasuke escaped from the temple with his lord’s head in tow. By protecting Nobunaga’s remains, Yasuke denied Mitsuhide the chance to seize his enemy’s head and display it as a way of establishing legitimacy and power.

“The reason behind Mitsuhide’s betrayal of Nobunaga is one of the great mysteries of Japanese history,” Doan says. “There are many stories—not all of them historically verifiable—of what could have led to the Honnoji Incident.”

Utagawa Sadahide, War Council Before the Battle of Yamazaki​​​​​​​, 1863
Utagawa Sadahide, War Council Before the Battle of Yamazaki, 1863 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Not much is known about Yasuke’s fate after the ambush. According to Lockley, he may have been badly wounded and captured as one of the last survivors of Nobunaga’s inner circle. The last known record of Yasuke describes him being escorted to a Jesuit mission by Mitsuhide’s warriors. “What we do know,” says Doan, “is that Mitsuhide did not execute Yasuke.”

Lockley speculates that Mitsuhide spared Yasuke to gain the support of the Jesuit missionaries. The usurping general lacked allies and only survived Nobunaga by a few days. On July 2, one of Nobunaga’s retainers, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, defeated Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki. Hideyoshi went on to become Japan’s second “Great Unifier,” uniting the entire country by 1590.

Yasuke in pop culture

Despite the lack of concrete information about Yasuke, the samurai’s life has inspired a range of adaptations. In 1968, Japanese author Kurusu Yoshio published Kuro-suke, a children’s book that dramatizes Yasuke’s story. More recent titles about the warrior include Lockley’s 2019 book, co-written with Geoffrey Girard, and Jamal Turner’s 2020 children’s book Yasuke: The Legend of the African Samurai. Yasuke also shows up in the 2017 video game “Nioh,” which is set during the Sengoku period.

Possible depiction of Yasuke (left side) on a Rinpa-style ink-stone box dated to the 1590s
Possible depiction of Yasuke (left side) on a Rinpa-style ink-stone box dated to the 1590s Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 2019, Chadwick Boseman, perhaps best known for portraying the eponymous superhero in Marvel’s Black Panther, signed on to play Yasuke in an upcoming film. “The legend of Yasuke is one of history’s best kept secrets, the only person of non-Asian origin to become a samurai,” the actor told Deadline. “That’s not just an action movie, that’s a cultural event, an exchange, and I am excited to be part of it.” Boseman died of colon cancer in August 2020, leaving the project’s future uncertain.

Production on the live-action film may be stalled, but that hasn’t stopped other creatives from offering their own takes on Yasuke. The six-episode anime “Yasuke,” released on Netflix in April 2021, follows a heavily fictionalized version of the warrior 20 years after the Honnoji Incident as he battles giant robots, ancient demons and other evil creatures. LaKeith Stanfield of Judas and the Black Messiah fame voices Yasuke, who spends the series protecting Saki, a young girl with magical powers, from dark forces as they journey north together.

“Since Yasuke doesn’t have an owned estate, no one owns his character—his story was up for interpretation,” animation director LeSean Thomas told Den of Geek last year. “I knew I wanted to tell a story that was removed from history so that we can create a new action hero and celebrate him through this adventure story.”

Yoshiko Okuyama, an expert on Japanese studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, praises “Yasuke” for featuring a Black hero as its lead character. Referencing the lack of racial diversity in anime, the scholar points out that portrayals of Black people in early animated titles were often demeaning, showing these individuals with exaggerated facial features.

Yasuke | Official Trailer | Netflix

“Although [‘Yasuke’] is a fantasy, the story is drawn from a documented history about a real-life dark-skinned samurai in 16th-century Japan, which not so many Japanese themselves knew,” Okuyama says. “In the past, Japan’s anime, as well as American animation works, grossly misrepresented [Black characters] for decades. It is overdue that they are put in central roles with positive traits, as movers and shakers of the story, not as sidekicks or villains.”

Doan, meanwhile, notes that Yasuke’s voice is conspicuously absent from adaptations of his life. No documents produced by the samurai himself are known to survive today. But, she says, “Even without a large number of surviving historical sources for us to understand the full extent of Yasuke’s activity or personal experiences, Yasuke’s story is an example of the kind of exciting and unexpected transnational encounters occurring within Black and Japanese history.”

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