This is the story of Yasuke, the first black samurai. In the late 1500s, Jesuit priests enslaved a towering young man from somewhere in central or western Africa. During a missionary trip to Japan in 1579, this slave was brought along under the service of the Italian missionary Alessandro Valignano. Whilst with him, his dark skin would cause quite a stir, as the local people would become quite fascinated at the sight of him. In fact, he became so talked about, that Oda Nobunaga, the unifier and ruler of Japan, demanded his presence so that he might see the giant black man for himself.
Having never really seen a black man before, Nobunaga inspected Yasuke’s skin, suspecting it must have been colored by a black ink, therefore Nobunaga ordered Yasuke to be stripped and made him scrub his skin with soap and water. Upon realizing that his skin was not painted on, Nobunaga took a great interest in him. According to the Lord Nobunaga Chronicle, it is said that Nobunaga praised Yasuke’s strength, claiming he had the strength of ten men, and even had his nephew give him some money as a gift.
Yasuke would travel with other Christian missionaries for a while in Japan before returning to Nobunaga and entering his service as the first and only recorded black retainer. It’s likely by this point, Yasuke could speak Japanese, or was atleast taught to communicate as a result of efforts to ensure his missionaries were effective in talking to the locals about Christianity. It was said that Nobunaga enjoyed talking to him, and would go on to hand Yasuke his own residence, as well as giving him a short katana. He granted him the honorable role of weapon bearer, assigned him as his personal body guard, and gave him the name Yasuke, which is theorized to be a Japanese version of his original African name.
Yasuke was a strong warrior, rising in the ranks on the battlefield and as a castle guard. He became a respected samurai in only a year, a status which was typically only inherited. Nobunaga treated him as family, and they would dine together and ride beside one another in battle, an honor given to very few. After the battle of Tenmokuzan, where the combined forces of Oda Nobunaga and his right-hand man Tokugawa Ieyasu crushed the final stand of the rival Takeda clan, Yasuke was present and helped inspect the territory of the Takedas. It was here he met Tokugawa Ieyasu who would go on to describe Yasuke as over 6 feet tall and having skin like charcoal.
In June 1582, when Nobunaga was assassinated by Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his own retainers, Yasuke was there at the time, embroiled in battle. Oda Nobutada, the son of Nobunaga, would attempt to rally forces against Akechi, which Yasuke stood behind. However, Nobutada was either killed or forced to commit suicide by the Akechi forces. Yasuke was said to have fought against the Akechi til the very end, even with two of the Oda’s dead, but he was soon captured. He was then presented to Akechi Mitsuhide who turned his nose up at the man, supposedly stating that the black man was an animal, as well as not Japanese, and therefore he should not be killed, but simply thrown back into the wild. Some theorized that Yasuke went back to the Christian missionaries and served the rest of his life out with them, but there are no further written accounts of Yasuke in history. Yasuke’s story has become absolutely legendary, and his influence can still be felt in pop-culture today.
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