TOKYO — Nearly 450 years ago, a certain samurai warrior won the affections of 16th-century Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga, who nearly unified much of war-torn feudal Japan by the mid-to-late 16th century. But this samurai who bore the name Yasuke did not come from a long line of Japanese warriors; Originally from Africa, he was brought to Japan by a Jesuit missionary.
In spring 2021, streaming giant Netflix released an anime series based on Yasuke’s extraordinary life, and there have also been steps towards a Hollywood film adaptation. The Mainichi Shimbun delved into the mystery surrounding the African samurai.
The first season of the six-episode Netflix series Yasuke was released worldwide on April 29, 2021. It is set during the Sengoku Warring States period, when rival warlords were fighting for control of Japan. The first part establishes that Yasuke, the strongest ronin ever known – a masterless samurai – leads a quiet life after spending too many days in battle. However, when a village turns into a war zone, he draws on his katana sword again.
In March 2021, prior to the start of the series, “Yasuke” director LeSean Thomas made the following comment on the inspiration behind the anime:
“I first learned about Yasuke’s role in Japanese history in about a decade. The children’s book Kuro-suke by Kurusu Yoshio (Reporter’s Note: 1968, Iwasaki Shoten) contained images that piqued my curiosity. To finally learn that he wasn’t just a fictional character but a real person was exciting stuff for an adventure story.”
The claim that Yasuke was originally from Mozambique is a prominent theory. Thomas Lockley, 44, an associate professor at Nihon University Law School in Tokyo who has been researching African samurai for over 10 years, commented: “His appearance and skin color are not those of someone from Mozambique. I would say he hails from near (today’s) South Sudan.”
He added: “I believe he was captured as a child in Africa and sold on the slave market. But I think he was a freedman or a mercenary when he came to Japan.”
Yasuke arrived by ship in 1579 at what is now the port of Kuchinotsu on Nagasaki Prefecture’s Shimabara Peninsula, accompanying the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, possibly as his bodyguard. With the Jesuit, Yasuke is said to have visited missionary outposts and met Christian feudal lords in southwestern Japan.
In 1581 Valignano and his party went as ambassadors to Japan’s then capital, Kyoto. It is believed that the party sought a meeting with Nobunaga, the country’s most powerful lord at the time, after defeating his closest rivals, to ask him for help in promoting Christianity.
With a height of 180 centimeters and his dark skin, Yasuke must have attracted people’s attention. Crowds formed in Kyoto to see him, and news of this uproar eventually reached Nobunaga. Then, with another Jesuit, Yasuke met the great warlord at Kyoto’s Honno-ji Temple.
In his Shincho Koki, or The Chronicles of Lord Nobunaga, Nobunaga henchman Ota Gyuichi described Yasuke as having superhuman strength. Nobunaga, who promoted martial arts, is said to have been particularly fond of sumo wrestling. A folding screen said to be illustrated in the early Edo period (1603-1867) shows an illustration of a man who appears to be black and who is participating in sumo. Lockley believes the black man to be Yasuke while a man seated next to him watching is Nobunaga.
After that, Yasuke began serving Nobunaga and was promoted. However, about a year and three months later, in June 1582, a Nobunaga general named Akechi Mitsuhide rebelled, driving the warlord to commit suicide at Honno-ji Temple. When Mitsuhide attacked with 13,000 soldiers, Nobunaga is said to have ordered Yasuke to flee and go to Nobutada, Nobunaga’s son and successor.
Yasuke fought to protect Nobutada, but when the battle was lost, he obeyed orders to present his sword to a Mitsuhide vassal. Yasuke was not killed by Mitsuhide but was sent to a Christian church and Jesuit outpost. What happened to him after that is unknown.
One of the few researchers dedicated to the study of African samurai, Lockley published Yasuke: In Search of the African Samurai in Japan in 2017 (Ohta Publishing Co.). The US and UK versions of the book have also attracted attention, and Yasuke has become better known abroad.
The researcher commented, “I think that the enigmatic life of Yasuke, which so captures people’s imaginations, is receiving so much attention now because of the internet age and its instant access to mountains of information. As our society becomes more multicultural, it is likely that Yasuke will continue to be recognized as a pioneer in this field.”
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Thomas Lockley was born in London in 1978. He earned a license to teach foreign languages from the University of Sheffield and completed postgraduate studies at the Open University. He came to Japan in 2000 and was appointed Associate Professor in the College of Law, Nihon University in 2019. He specializes in language education theory and teaches Japanese history in English.
(Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Goto, Digital News Center)