Was an African named Yasuke the first non Japanese Samurai?

August 01, 2016

Was an African named Yasuke the first non Japanese Samurai?

If you’re to read Histoire Ecclesiastique Des Isles Et Royaumes Du Japon, which was written by François Solier of the Society of Jesus in 1627, then you would learn that Yasuke was a Muslim originating from Mozambique. However, Solier’s opinion was likely just an assumption, as it was not written until many years after events took place, and there are no other surviving records that corroborates has views. It’s also possible that Yasuke originated from Portugal, Ethiopia or Angola and he also could have just as easily been an African mercenary employed by an Indian sovereign, of which there were many at this time.

Yasuke Samurai
During an investigation conducted by the entertainment program “Discovery of the World’s Mysteries”, it was proposed that Yasuke was actually a Makua named Yasufe. Despite their claims the television programme provided little in the way of evidence to collaborate their conclusions. He may also have been of the Yao people, who at this time were just coming into contact with the Portugese, this might go some way to accounting for the name., ‘Yao’ can be added to common Japanese male name ‘suke’, eventually becoming Yasuke.


What we do know for certain is that Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579, at the time he was a servant of the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who had been tasked as the inspector of the Jesuit missions taking place in the Indies (East Africa & East Asia). Yasuke served Valignano as he travelled, and it’s noted that when a trip to the Capital area in March 1581, it caused quite a stir. During one incident, several Japanese people were killed by the crush of the crowd clamouring to get a look at him. It was during this event that the renowned warlord Nobunaga, famous for trying to unify Japan, heard the clamour from where he was staying and expressed an interest in seeing him. Nobunaga suspected that the dark skin was due to ink, so he insisted that Yasuke strip to the waist and scrub his skin. These events are recorded by letters written in 1581 and in a report created in 1582 by the Jesuit mission in Japan. When satisfied that the skin colour was not due to ink, Nobunaga took a liking to Yasuke. At some point after this event, the dates are unclear, Yasuke entered into Nobunaga’s service. Nobunaga was documented as saying Yasuke was handsome, healthy and having the strength of ten men. At 6ft 2inches tall Yasuke would have presented an imposing figure, towering above most of the Japanese at this time.

African Samurai on a Horse
Yasuke went with Nobunaga to his castle at Azuchi and quickly gain favour with Nobunaga, it is said that they enjoyed lengthy insightful conversations. After a while Yasuke was given his own residence and was presented with a ceremonial Katana, becoming the warlords weapon bearer and Samurai in the process.


Not long into the relationship Nobunaga’s stronghold was attacked and he was forced to commit seppuku by the army of Akechi Mitsuhide. Yasuke went on to join Nobunaga’s heir in an attempt to rally forces for a counter attack. During the fighting Yasuke was forced to give up his sword and rather than being killed he was returned to the Jesuits. After this point not much more is known of Yasuke, what happened to him or where he went. There were a few more mentions of Yasuke in accounts of the region, but it’s unlikely to be the same man.