Black Samurai, Yasuke

Black Samurai, the true story of Yasuke, the African Warrior

Who was history’s first and only black samurai? During the Sengoku Jidai era (戦国時代), translated as the ‘Warring States Period’ in the West, social advancement was a regular feature.

After all, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) was the son of an ashigaru (足軽), a peasant footsoldier. He even served as a sandal-bearer to the warlord Oda Nobunaga (織田信長). However, Hideyoshi would go on to rule all of Japan as one of the three great unifiers.

William Adams, an English sailor from Kent who landed in Japan in 1600, became an advisor to the eventual shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). Adams was the first Western samurai, given many privileges and took on the name Miura Anjin (三浦按針). His life formed the basis for ‘Shogun’, a famous book and TV series by James Clavell.

So it may or may not surprise you to learn that an African man, named Yasuke (弥助), came to Japan during this period. He became a loyal retainer to Oda Nobunaga, and fought alongside notable samurai in some of the most famous events in Japanese history. This is the story of Yasuke, the Black Samurai.




Wait, so there was an African warrior fighting in 16th century Japan?

The historical record is somewhat light on the details. But there are some written accounts that give us a picture of the man.

Yasuke, born in the first half of the 16th century, probably came from Mozambique, either as a slave or a shipmate after coming into contact with the Portugese. Although there are competing theories, including that he might have been from Ethiopia, a Makufa, a Yao or even from South Sudan.

Some researchers speculate that he may have been trafficked as part of the Arabian slave trade, possibly ending up in Gujarat or Goa in India. We do know that prior to arriving in Japan, Yasuke was in the service of Alessandro Valignano, a Jesuit missionary. Whether he was a soldier, a bodyguard or a valet, it isn’t clear.

Yasuke first landed in Japan in 1579, and came to Kyōto in 1581, where his complexion shocked many locals. According to a contemporary letter written by the Jesuit Luís Fróis, when brought before Oda Nobunaga, Yasuke was made to strip to the waist and scrub his skin. It seems the daimyō (大名), or feudal lord, believed that Yasuke’s skin was covered in black ink. Once he realized that it was just his complexion, Nobunaga took a keen interest in the African warrior, giving him a sum of money for his troubles.


Becoming the Black Samurai

Over the next months, Yasuke learned Japanese and spoke at length with Nobunaga. He eventually entering the daimyō’s service as a retainer and weapon bearer (better than smelly sandals, anyway). Oda Nobunaga loved to learn about the outside world, and particularly enjoyed speaking with the African warrior. Yasuke met other famous samurai from history as well, such as Gonroku (権六), Hashiba Hidekatsu (羽柴秀勝) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). He was even given a katana to wield, and may have been present at the Battle of Tenmokuzan (天目山の戦い).

However, his friendship with Oda Nobunaga did not last long. In 1582, in the Honnō-ji Incident (本能寺の変), Lord Nobunaga was assassinated and forced to commit seppuku by Akechi Mitsuhide (明智光秀). Yasuke was present and helped fight back the enemy forces.


Honnō-ji Incident

The Honnō-ji Incident was a seminal moment in Japanese history. Yasuke was present for it.


Once his master was defeated, he went on to join Nobunaga’s heir, Oda Nobutada (織田信忠), at Nijō Castle. There is a myth that he brought Nobunaga’s sword and decapitated head with him. There, Yasuke continued to fight the Akechi troops alongside the Oda clan. However, Nobutada was also defeated and forced to take his own life as well. Yasuke was captured.


And? What happened next?

What happens next is unclear. There are conflicting theories and ideas.

One account is that Yasuke’s life was spared by Akechi Mitsuhide, as he was ‘non-Japanese’ and ‘an animal’. He might have returned to the service of the Jesuits, or become a sailor. He may even have travelled the land, as a masterless samurai, a rōnin (浪人). There simply isn’t any written information about him after Nobutada’s defeat.


The legacy of Yasuke, the Black Samurai

In recent decades, Yasuke has become a feature of Japanese manga and TV dramas, as well as videogames. He serves as the inspiration for the protagonist in Afro Samurai (アフロサムライ), a popular anime and manga series. Even Hollywood is interested in his story. Chadwick Boseman was on board to star in a live-action film about Yasuke’s life. However, he passed away before production could begin.

Yasuke’s story is a remarkable one, and it makes us re-evaluate our understanding of history and its events. His life is a reminder that history cannot simply be viewed through the lens of one people or one nation’s perspective.

And let’s face it – an African warrior, possibly enslaved, who travelled halfway around the world, earned his freedom, fought alongside samurai and was present at the key events of the Sengoku Jidai? That’s pretty damn cool.


Lockley, Thomas (2019) Yasuke: The true story of the legendary African Samurai
Fujita, Midori (2005) アフリカ「発見」日本におけるアフリカ像の変遷
Lockley, Thomas (2017) 信長と弥助――本能寺を生き延びた黒人侍――
Ōta, Gyūichi (1622) 信長公記
Hollingworth, William (2019) African Samurai: The story of Yasuke — black samurai and warlord’s confidant
Fróis, Luís (1598) Cartas que os padres e irmãos da Companhia de Jesus escreverão dos reynos de Japão e China II


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A Japan-enthusiast from the UK, with a particular interest in history and the language, as well as cycling, writing and rock climbing.