Yasuke was a samurai of black African origin who served under the Japanese hegemon and warlord Oda Nobunaga in 1581 and 1582. The name “”Yasuke”” was granted to him by Nobunaga, although why and when is unclear. His original name is not recorded in any known source, so it is unclear if Yasuke is a Japanese rendering of his previous name, or a wholly new name granted by his lord.
Where Yasuke Came From
There are various theories as to his origin. François Solier of the Society of Jesus in 1627 wrote that Yasuke was likely from Mozambique, but his account may have simply been an assumption. It was written long after the event and there is no surviving contemporary account that corroborates it. It is also possible that he also came from Portugal, Angola or Ethiopia, and he could conceivably originally have been an African mercenary in the employ of an Indian sovereign, of which there were many at this time. Television program Discovery of the World’s Mysteries (世界ふしぎ発見) suggested that Yasuke was a Makua named Yasufe. This was not a highly journalistic investigation, and the program provided little proof for their conclusions. The Makua didn’t have any significant conflict with the Portuguese based on the Island of Mozambique until 1585. He may have been a member of the Yao people, who were just coming into contact with the Portuguese at the time, which might account for his name, Yao added to the common Japanese male name suffix of suke.
Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579 in the service of the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who had been appointed the Visitor (inspector) of the Jesuit missions in the Indies, meaning East Africa, South and East Asia. He accompanied Valignano when the latter came to the capital area in March 1581, causing a sensation. In one event, several people were crushed to death while clamouring to get a look at him.
Nobunaga heard the noise from the temple where he was staying and expressed a desire to see him. Suspecting the black color of his skin to be black ink, Nobunaga had him strip from the waist up and made him scrub his skin. These events are recorded in a 1581 letter of the Jesuit Luís Fróis to Lorenço Mexia and in the 1582 Annual Report of the Jesuit Mission in Japan, also by Frois. These were published in Cartas que os padres e irmãos da Companhia de Jesus escreverão dos reynos de Japão e China II, normally known simply as Cartas, in 1598.
Satisfied that he was in fact black, Nobunaga seems to have taken an interest in him. At some point, he was either given or allowed to enter Nobunaga’s service. Japanese accounts indicate he was presented to Nobunaga by the Portuguese, although European accounts make no mention of this.
It is likely that Yasuke could speak considerable Japanese. Nobunaga enjoyed talking with him (there is no indication that Nobunaga spoke Portuguese and it is unlikely that Yasuke would have been able to communicate in classical Chinese, the oriental lingua franca of the time). He seems to have become a close retainer, and was perhaps the only non-Japanese ‘warrior’ that Nobunaga had in his retinue, which could account for his rapid rise in favour and status. Yasuke was also mentioned in the prototype of Shinchōkōki owned by Sonkeikaku Bunko (尊経閣文庫), the archives of the Maeda Clan. According to this, Yasuke was given his own residence and a short, ceremonial katana by Nobunaga. Nobunaga also assigned him the duty of weapon bearer.
Battle in Kyoto
In June 1582, Nobunaga was attacked and forced to commit seppuku in Honnō-ji in Kyoto by the army of Akechi Mitsuhide. Yasuke was also there at the time and fought the Akechi forces. Immediately after Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke went to join Nobunaga’s heir Oda Nobutada who was trying to rally the Oda forces at Nijō Castle.
Yasuke fought alongside the Nobutada’s forces for a long time but he eventually surrendered his sword to Akechi’s men. They asked Akechi himself what to do with him. Akechi said that the black man was a beast and did not know anything, and furthermore, he was not Japanese, so they should not kill him but take him to the nanban-dera or nanban-ji (南蛮寺, literally the temple of the southern barbarians, how the Japanese referred to the Jesuit church). It is said that the reason why Akechi spoke in such a manner was a form of taking pity on him, i.e. giving a clear reason why not to kill him. Black people were not discriminated against in Japan at this time; they were even admired, for the Buddha was often portrayed as black in Japanese temples. However, perhaps Akechi also did not want to offend the Jesuits, needing all the friends he could get at this time of political turmoil.
There is no further written information about him, but there were many Africans in the service of Japanese and European employers, as well as independently employed men, in Japan at this time.