Talk around the writers’ campfire recently led to a bit of back-and-forth about this dude named Yasuke. So this guy is a historically verifiable African who served in the retinue of the Medieval Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga. Just in case you’re not a complete geek like me, or a Japanese historian, we’re talking late 1500s here. 😉
Whatever this guy’s real name was, he was dubbed “Yasuke” by Oda himself sometime between 1581 and 1582. Although there are numerous accounts of Yasuke having served in Oda’s court (and on the battlefield), the sources for any other real details about the dude’s life are scarce…at best.
Generally accepted historical facts roll out a bit like this: Yasuke turns up in the historical record in 1579. He entered Japan then as the servant of a Jesuit “inspector.” By March of 1581, Yasuke had stirred up such a commotion that Oda had him summoned. Believing his dark skin to be ink, Oda had Yasuke stripped and scrubbed. (The threat is real, y’all.)
Satisfied that Yasuke’s skin was, in fact, that black, Oda managed to gain Yasuke into his service. Now…this wasn’t the same kind of “service” he was doin’ for the Church. Yasuke eventually became the fucking weapon bearer for the most powerful and feared man in Japan.
Oda was so enamored by Yasuke–his strength (said to be that of 10 normal [Japanese] men, his appearance (height not the least of that)–that by May of that same year, Oda had Yasuke come back with him to his castle in Azuchi. Yasuke also apparently spoke fluent Japanese, because Oda is known to have enjoyed copious amounts of convos with the guy.
At some point, Oda bequeathed–I don’t get to use that word nearly enough these days–Yasuke with his own residence and a sword. That’s the point at which he became sword bearer, lucky for him.
By June of 1582, Oda had been forced to commit seppuku. Yasuke is known to have directly engaged in the fighting that day, and fought on after Oda’s suicide…both on the day of Oda’s death–as he escaped–and in the subsequent weeks and months as he joined Oda’s heir. Yasuke continued to fight as one of the Oda until he himself was captured.
Oda forces were defeated by Akechi forces; Yasuke surrendered his sword to the Akechi, and awaited his fate. The Akechi leader himself decided Yasuke’s punishment. Akechi stated that since Yasuke wasn’t Japanese, that he should be given back to the Jesuits, and not killed. Shortly after Yasuke’s return, he disappears from the historical record.
It’s also interesting to note here that Yasuke wasn’t the only African to live or fight in Japan during this timeframe. Although the vast majority were servants–not exactly to say slaves–there were more than one that were known to be specifically warriors. Yasuke is the foremost of those men.
In Part 2, we’ll skim over a somewhat exhaustive list of other Foreign Samurai*.
(*This list will not include Captain Nathan Algren, late of the 7th Cavalry.)
Featured image courtesy of thatswhatsgoodmedia.com