500 years ago, during the feudal rule of the illustrious Oda Nobunaga, the first of the three unifiers of Japan, a 6-foot-tall African who was also among the first Africans to ever appear on the island was the first foreigner to become a samurai.
While a throng of servants labored to remove the “black ink” from his flesh, the warlord commanded him to remove his clothes. The slave was meant to become the first Black samurai, but the warlord was unaware of this.
Nobunaga was a very meritocratic tyrant who was a wise and enlightened leader. Beyond the epidermis, he could see. According to Samurai Road author Lawrence Winkler, he took advantage of the Portuguese and other outsiders at the time.
YASUKE: THE AFRICAN SAMURAI IN JAPAN
He was appointed to Nobunaga’s service, given the name Yasuke (likely a Japanization of his birth name or Christian name), a sum of money, a house, and a katana (one of the most traditional types of ceremonial weapons that were not intended for use in combat and were adorned with jewels, inscriptions, and/or made of the precious metal), as well as praise for his strength and stature, describing “his might as that of 10 men.”
Yasuke continued to be a valuable part of the daimy’s entourage after that, devotedly serving him as a respected samurai. He had transformed from being a bit of Portuguese property to a privileged Japanese individual.
After being betrayed by one of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, Nobunaga’s story ended abruptly in 1582. During the decisive battle, Yasuke is said to have fought valiantly while assisting in protecting his master’s castle from Mitsuhide’s troops.
Yasuke fought until everything was lost and handed his sword to the enemy. He was spared because he was not Japanese and sent back to the Jesuits, where he is said to have spent the remainder of his days. In contrast, wounded Nobunaga committed seppuku rather than submit and risk dishonor.
Given that he is still regarded as one of the most complex warriors to have lived during the Middle Ages, it is intriguing how a man from a completely different society learned the skills necessary to become one of the best samurais.
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