The Story of Yasuke – The African Samurai

One day in my Japanese class while studying abroad, we got into a discussion regarding Japanese history. The conversation eventually turned in my direction, where I asked sensei and the class if they’d ever heard of a man named Yasuke.

They had not.

That prompted me to inform the class about his existence and legacy. This is the story of the one and only African Samurai, Yasuke.

A painting of a man (Yasuke) on a horse.

Yasuke was the only African and first non-Japanese samurai. His story began around 1579 in Edo Japan. Not much is known about his life before arriving in Japan. Some say he was from the country of Mozambique and came to Japan on a ship with an Italian missionary named Alessandro Valignano on an inspection tour. Other accounts say he was an escaped slave.

Yasuke arrived in Kyoto where he found himself at the feet of the Feudal Lord Oda Nobunaga, who praised his height and build. It had been the first time he had seen an African.

Grayscale drawing of samurai wielding swords against each other

Nobunaga quickly enlisted him into his ranks. They soon became close, treating him almost like family. Nobunaga described Yasuke as a man who had the might of 10 men, and was among the few people permitted to dine with the lord — a high honor. He fought in a number of important battles and is said to even be present the night Nobunaga took his own life.

The fall of Nobunaga’s empire in 1582 also marks the end of Yasuke’s known history, when he was exiled.

The tale of Yasuke has perplexed and fascinated me from the moment I’d heard it. It is a story I and many other people would like to preserve in history.

There’s also some media regarding the topic if you’d like to learn more about him. There are many books such as “African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan” and Yoshio Kurusu’s 1969 award winning children’s book “くろ助 Kurosuke”. Hollywood studio Lionsgate also announced a movie focusing on his life is in production.

Cover of a book with a person in samurai gear. Title reads "Yasuke: The True Story of the Legendary African Samurai".

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