Yasuke : the true legend of the first black samurai

yasuke

So many questions about the man considered as the only black samurai in feudal Japan. But who is he really?

Yasuke was an assumed name worn by the first black samurai in the service of the powerful warlord: Oda Nobunaga. Yasuke received the highest rank of the Japanese nobility as a samurai. His skin color and his fighting martial abilities made his legend.

Yasuke is not only a historical warrior who marked the Sengoku period. He is a source of inspiration for many works of Japanese culture.

In this blog post, we will explain to you, the story of this iconic man. You will discover what forged his legend through the ages:

  • What is a samurai?
  • The legend of Yasuke, the only black samurai in Japan
  • The myth of Yasuke in Japanese popular culture
  • The appearance of Yasuke in other pop-culture sources

Without further ado, let's take a look at this mysterious and iconic story from Japan... But before that, let us introduce you to what it means to be a samurai!

What is a samurai? 

feudal-japan-samuraiFeodal Japanese warrior : the Samurai is dressed in samurai armor, a Mempo Japanese oni mask and a Kabuto samurai helmet

Historically, the samurai represented a noble warrior caste of Feudal Japan. They served a lord during all their life. Indeed, the samurai was a kind of occidental knight leaded by a daimyo (vassals of the shogun). 

A samurai is totally the opposite of a ninja. It's another ancient Japanese caste and faction that used surprise attack, poisonings, chaos and assassinations to spy and defeat their enemies without honor. The Ninjustu shinobi technics runs counter to the samurai bushido code of honor... All his life the Japanese warrior will strive to uphold the way of the warrior code with nobility and honor...

The samurai is recognized thanks to the two swords (katana) worn on his Obi belt (when he is dressed with a traditional Japanese kimono for men. And thanks to the samurai armor and the samurai mask (mempo), he wears when on the battlefield. The traditional mask of the Japanese warrior represented an Oni demon or a terrifying monster. Demon are inspired by shinto mythology...

The samurai are often confused with bushi. They are Japanese cavalry suit with armor. They  used bows (yumi) to defend themselves. 

Also be careful not to confuse samurai with a ronin as there is a slight subtlety. A ronin is a samurai who is no longer in the service of a lord. Among this warrior caste of the Edo era, some (twelve) managed to become "legends", including Yasuke.

The legend of Yasuke, the only black samurai in Japan

In the sixteenth century, an African slave arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time. His first name Yasuke was given to him by Lord Oda Nobunaga, but he was also known as "Kuro-san" (black gentleman), in reference to his skin color. Very little exists about him, but legend has it that this man became a samurai of medieval Japan.

The information we have at our disposal, comes from works such as the memoirs of Oda Nobunaga (ShinchŇć KŇćki). There is also a book written by Fran√ßois Solier and the writings of missionary Luis Frois. Others such as Serge Bil√©, a French-Ivorian writer, tells us about the life of Yasuke in his literary work.

Yasuke, the African servant

first-black-samuraiThe first black samurai

According to François Solier, Yasuke was born in Mozambique even though proponents of Afrocentrism seem to claim otherwise. Raised within the Makua tribe, it was during a hunting party, that he was captured by negators. He was deported to India and more precisely to Goa, where he was sold, then became a worker of the Jesuits.

He worked there until in 1574, a brotherhood of Jesuit missionaries landed to oversee the place. One of them, Alessandro Valignano, was admiring of Yasuke's stoutness and took him on as a bodyguard. This chance encounter changed the life of this slave forever and three years later (1577). The Jesuits left, taking Yasuke with them...

They made a stopover in Malaysia and then in China (Macau), before finally reaching the Japanese Archipelago in 1579. The headquarters of the Jesuits was on the island of Kyushu, in the locality of Arima which is close to Nagasaki. According to the writings of the priest Organtino Gnecchi-Soldo, the Japanese loved to admire the black Africans.

Yasuke, the black slave who became the first samurai

Exhibiting black slaves was a lucrative business for Jesuit missionaries in the Far East. In 1581, Alessandro and his slave, along with his ecclesiastical counterparts Organtino and Luis Frois, left the island for Kyoto. This province was controlled by Oda Nobunaga, a powerful feudal lord, who was alerted by an incident caused by a slave.

Nothing untoward about this incident since in reality, the Japanese population wanted to admire this black-skinned giant. Oda Nobunaga was in awe of the individual facing him. In the ShinchŇć KŇćki, Lord Nobunaga depicted Kuro-san as a tall, strong, charismatic and also, intelligent man.

Nobunaga asked the Christian Alessandro to leave Kuro-san to him, which he agreed to do. Thus, the black slave was elevated to the higher rank of the Japanese society during feudalism period : the samurai class. He joined the closed friend circle of the futur shogunate. Yasuke received as a gift, a sword, a house and became the husband of the lord's adopted daughter.

The end of a legendary adventure

yasuke-statueThe most iconic black samurai of all time : Yasuke statue

Yasuke had become a valiant Japanese warrior and trusted by Oda Nobunaga. In 1582, the Nobunaga clan and the Tokugawa clan joined together to fight a battle against the Takeda clan. Nobunaga warlord ambition was to invade and conquer the Japanese islands. He wanted to become the Japanese emperor. After losing the battle of Tenmokuzan, Katsuyori Takeda performed the Japanese ritual of seppuku which consists of committing suicide with a blade by cutting open his stomach. His clan was completely annihilated by Leyasu Tokugawa and Nobunaga armies...

Japanese sources report that Yasuke participated in this battle, and distinguished himself by successfully defeating a large number of enemies. Some of Nobunaga's relatives did not appreciate the closeness between the black samurai and his warlord. Oda Nobunaga's vassal named Akechi Mitsuhide, accused his lord of being responsible for the murder of his mother. 

Akechi betrayed Nobunaga's trust, and began a vengeful war at the temple of HonnŇć-ji to kill him. In order to refuse defeat, the ruler killed his own son (Nobutada), and committed seppuku. Yasuke was captured, then repatriated to a church.¬†

The myth of Yasuke in Japanese popular culture

Yasuke's disappearance left a gaping hole in his story, so his end is unknown. Many theories animate the popular culture that revolves around him and offers us a mixture of myth and reality. 

The Japanese animation series from Netflix: Yasuke

yasuke-animeYasuke anime Netflix

Anime series and manga like Jujutsu Kaisen and Attack of the Titans are very popular and you may have already seen an episode. But did you know that these are the same studios? They are Mappa Studios known for their breathtaking animations.

Netflix went all out for the success of its new series, working with LeSean Thomas and Takeshi Koike. The former directs comic books and the latter, such achievements as the Lupin III saga. The idiosyncratic mix of these two protagonists gave birth to the fantastic and bloody Yasuke series.

When LeSean pitched his idea to the American streaming giant, Netflix said yes and committed to producing the series. The animated series brings together a mix of cyberpunk science fiction and a fantasy and Japanese drama style.

A journey into the heart of feudal and futuristic Japan

The Japanese series first takes up the story of Yasuke as told by historical sources. The big difference lies in a parallel 14th century universe. Yasuke's Japan is plagued by magical demon and sophisticated Mecha and Gundam weapons that wreak havoc on the world.

After the death by seppuku of his lord Oda Nobunaga, Yasuke becomes a samurai ronin, and retires. He is confronted by a demonic witch, accompanied by a terrifying general. She leads an army of demons that have already defeated Yasuke. After his encounter with a young girl with mysterious powers, he decides to take up arms again to fight this super-powerful demon Feudal lord enemy once more.

There follows a series of thrilling adventures where we meet robots, lycanthropes or even fantastic monsters that confront Yasuke. Although the animation is epic, the series remains less compelling than the film Yojimbo by screenwriter Akira Kurosawa. Beginning in episode form on April 29, 2021, lovers of feudal period will not be able to enjoy the true historical narrative.

The Afro Samurai manga

black-samuraiYasuke afro samurai: similarities between him and Yasuke the black samurai

This manga for adults has been created by the mangaka Takashi Okazaki and then adapted into an anime, in 2007. The animated film is called Afro Samurai Resurrection (released in 2009). The series-manga does not exactly repeat the story of Yasuke, but is inspired by his legend.

In fact, the main character is a black samurai, wearing a white kimono, a hakama samurai pant, Japanese wooden sandals, and a white bandana. As a young man, he saw his father, killed by a mysterious cowboy wearing the No. 2 bandana. In this Japan medieval alternative, headbands have been created in order to set  a social hierarchy between men.

Afro decides to track down his father's murderer for revenge. Will our young Afro samurai succeed in avenging his father's death? I'll let you discover the saga.

The comic book "Kurusan, the black samurai"

This comic book has been published since January 2021 by Delcourt Editions. It also tells the story of the mythical Yasuke. Directed by screenwriter Thierry Gloris and cartoonist Emiliano Zarcone, the comic is already making readers fantasize. The first volume of 56 pages shows us scenes of Japanese wars, trying to stay as close as possible to the real facts. 

In fact, we find the real Feudal Japan that we know i.e. in its customs, traditional Japanese clothing (Kimono, Yukata, Haori, Hanten, Geta sandals etc...), its architecture, its folklore. However, the designers are faced with the difficulty of finding an ending for Kuru-san, because as mentioned the historical facts do not speak of it. Out of obligation, they create a fictional scene for our black samurai, thus placing him in the background in favor of a lordly battle.

Some historical elements are also missing from this comic, including the mess caused by Yasuke's presence in Japan when he arrives. As well as Oda Nobunaga's amazement when he sees him for the first time. Despite everything, it remains promising and the second volume seems to indicate that the authors will develop the story a little more.

Yasuke's appearance in other pop culture sources

yasuke-movieYasuke movie: Chadwick (RIP) as the warrior Yasuke

Since the end of Black Panther, readers seem to be increasingly interested in fictional series and manga of black superheroes. Yasuke's story seemed to be lost forever, but for some unexplained reason, it resurfaced. His popularity in the 21st century continues to grow.

Here are some of the pop culture works that have been influenced by Yasuke:

  • The book Kuro-suke: written in 1968 by Kurusu Yoshio, this is a children's comic book that features a black man. This one would have been sent to Oda Nobunaga as a gift, by a Jesuit. The young working man will become quite close to his master. When Akechi Mitsuhide comes to take revenge on Oda, Kuro-suke confronts him. Unfortunately, his lord commits suicide and the young black man runs away. A rather incredible story that allowed its author to win the award for writers of history for children
  • The historical novel "Yasuke": in 2018, Serge Bil√©, Franco-Ivorian author, tells the real story of Yasuke. That is, from his departure from Africa as a slave of a Jesuit missionary, to trusted man of Nobunaga. But also, that he became the very first foreign samurai in Japan and even, with black skin
  • Yasuke's exhibition: also in 2018, an exhibition of this black slave was held in Yaound√©, the political capital of Cameroon
  • The casting of Yasuke and Chadwick Boseman: since the Black Panther comic and movie, the Hollywood star of the avengers had become a hero of African culture. Chadwick Boseman had been cast in 2019 as the samurai Yasuke in a Lionsgate film. For the actor, it was more than an action movie, it was a cultural event. Since Chadwick's early death, one wonders if the work will continue...

Yasuke, the only black samurai in the Japanese archipelago

In this article, we first saw that a samurai was a Japanese fighter of the highest caste. We have explained how a mere slave was able to rise to the highest ranks of feudal Japan.

Kurusan is known for his feats of arms in the service of his lord Oda Nobunaga. What makes his legend even more intriguing is that his end is unknown. Yet the legend of Yasuku samurai is timeless. Yasuke's legacy has been passed on to the works of pop-culture, and nothing seems to be able to extinguish it. 

Hopefully, historians will be able to find more information about his end, and in the meantime if you'd like to know more about the samurai, we recommend you read our article on the top 42 crazy facts about these noble Japan warriors... The fifth crazy fact is amazing!

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