Was an African named Yasuke the first non-Japanese Samurai?

2 minute read

African Samurai on a Horse

What We Know

Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579, a servant of the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who had been tasked with inspecting the Jesuit missions in the Indies (East Africa & East Asia). Yasuke served Valignano as he travelled, and it’s noted that when he traveled 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 this strange black man. Nobunaga suspected that the dark skin was due to ink, so he insisted that Yasuke strip to the waist and scrub his skin. Once satisfied that the skin colour was not due to ink, Nobunaga took a liking to Yasuke. These events are recorded by the Jesuit mission in Japan in letters written in 1581 and a report created in 1582.  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 1.88m tall, Yasuke would have presented an imposing figure, towering above most of the Japanese at this time.

Yasuke went with Nobunaga to his castle at Azuchi and quickly gained favour with Nobunaga, it is said that they enjoyed lengthy, insightful conversations. After a while, Yasuke was given his own residence and presented with a ceremonial Katana, becoming the warlord's weapon bearer and a 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 someone named Yasuke in accounts of the region, but it’s unlikely to be the same man.

Yasuke Samurai

Proposed Origins

According to Histoire Ecclesiastique Des Isles Et Royaumes Du Japon, which was written by François Solier of the Society of Jesus in 1627, Yasuke was a Muslim originating from Mozambique. However, this was likely just an assumption, as Solier did not write his book until many years after the events took place, and there are no other surviving records that support this. Yasuke could have just as easily originated from Portugal, Ethiopia or Angola, and he also could have been an African mercenary employed by an Indian sovereign, of which there were many at this time.

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 its claims, the television programme provided little in the way of evidence to collaborate its 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 the common Japanese male name ‘suke’, and, with a little alteration, form the name 'Yasuke'.