News: The Legend of Yasuke
Story by Cpl. Kenneth Trotter
IWAKUNI, Japan - The month of February is synonymous with Black History Month. Every year, the most popular Black figures are discussed, showcasing how they helped make a difference to those around them and across the world. Whether Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, or the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, the contributions of those who are of African descent are numerous and well-known.
But what of those not so well known?
This is the legend of Yasuke.
Some aspects of Yasuke are substantiated. Others muddled through the ages, becoming the basis for legend. The possibility of an African slave as the first of his kind in Japan is indeed somewhat true.
Yasuke, means, “the black one,” in Japanese. He’s been erroneously given the name of “Kuru-san,” which is highly unlikely as the word “ san” wasn’t used during that period of Japanese history.
He was a slave who traveled to Japan with members of one of several Italian missionary groups that arrived in Japan in 1579.
No one knows where Yasuke came from. Some unsubstantiated claims say he came from Mozambique, others say somewhere in the Congo. It is almost certain he was from somewhere in central or western Africa as that was the region where most slaves came from.
Yasuke found himself at a somewhat peculiar time in history not only for himself but also involving the world. Two separate yet unique world events took shape during the time of his arrival in Japan. The Transatlantic Slave Trade hit its stride. While the slave trade boomed in western and central Africa and the New World, political and social upheaval was taking place across Japan, with warlords vying for control of the country, during the Sengoku Period. This was soon brought to an end by the steeled determination and military decisiveness of Oda Nobunaga, the Japanese warlord who laid the foundation for the unification of Japan.
Another unsubstantiated claim is Yasuke was the first person of African descent to ever set foot in Japan. If so, he was probably a sight to behold. Reports state Yasuke’s skin was as dark as an ox, surprising to the Japanese. He towered over those around him, even the Italians, as he was rumored to stand between 6’3” to 6’5”.
There are conflicting reports as to how old Yasuke was when he arrived. Some say he was just a boy of 16 or 17. Others sources claim he was 26 or 27.
In fact, he created such a sensation that the news of this dark-skinned foreigner reached the ears of even Nobunaga himself, who requested Yasuke’s presence to his castle. When Yasuke appeared before Nobunaga, the warlord forced him to strip and scrubbed him vigorously as Nobunaga believed his black skin was painted on.
Yasuke intrigued Nobunaga the more he spoke with him. The tales of this fantastical land he came from were surely appealing to the warlord. He supposedly was very intelligent and understood the basics of the Japanese language so Nobunaga requested the missionaries leave Yasuke with him for a time.
Though Yasuke was Nobunaga’s “servant,” or vassal, it was a step up from before when Yasuke was seen merely seen as property and a beast of burden. Yasuke had a set of standards he probably never encountered before. He ate not only at a table with the other Japanese but often ate with Nobunaga and his family and received money from Nobunaga and his brothers, either Oda Nobukane or Oda Nagamasu.
Nobunaga was also impressed with Yasuke’s great strength.
Yasuke was not just a novelty item for Nobunaga. He allowed Yasuke to don Samurai armor and weapons during several instances of battle. This is truly impressive as traditionally only those born into samurai families could become samurai, let alone wield their weapons and wear their uniforms, regardless if they were warriors elsewhere.
Though he was now considered a free man by most standards, he did not own any land of his own. He was essentially a samurai in name only.
After Nobunaga allowed Yasuke to live with him for more than a year, Akechi Mitsuhide, one of Nobunaga’s most trusted generals, betrayed Nobunaga at Honno-ji and forced him to commit Seppeku, or ritualistic suicide.
When Yasuke received the news of Nobunaga’s death, he immediately withdrew to Nijo Castle, the home of Nobunaga’s heir, Oda Nobutada.
Sometime later, an attack by Mitsuhide’s forces followed as well.
Yasuke fought alongside Nobutada’s warriors and only surrendered his sword when the last of Nobutada’s warriors did likewise.
When asked what to do with the former slave, Mitsuhide dismissed him as an afterthought, saying Yasuke, and those of the same hue as him, were animals and as he was not a true samurai, not worth killing. With that, Yasuke was taken back to Kyoto to the Jesuits. This is, regrettably, the end of Yasuke’s tale.
No one knows what became of Yasuke after he returned to the missionaries. He faded into obscurity, his true story lost to time. He may have earned his complete freedom and traveled back to his homeland. He may have stayed in Japan, or he may have returned with the Jesuits. It is uncertain at this point. But this is the story of Yasuke, the first “Afro-samurai.”