The Life of Yasuke: The African Samurai

Yasuke (弥助 or 弥介) was a man who lived in a time and place where his very existence was improbable. He was a black man in feudal Japan, a country that was highly xenophobic and racially segregated. And yet, through a combination of skill, courage, and sheer luck, he managed to carve out a place for himself in Japanese society. He even rose to the rank of samurai, something that was nearly unheard of for a foreigner, much less a black man. This is his story.


The Life of Yasuke

Yasuke’s Early Life

Yasuke was born in what is now Mozambique in 1555. Not much is known about his early life, but it is believed that he was brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries sometime around 1579. He arrived in the port city of Nagasaki, which was one of the only places in Japan where foreigners were allowed to trade.

Yasuke quickly came to the attention of Oda Nobunaga, Japan’s most powerful warlord. Nobunaga was impressed by Yasuke’s massive stature (he stood almost six and a half feet tall) and ability to speak Japanese. Nobunaga took Yasuke into his service as a bodyguard and swordsman.

Rise to Power

Yasuke proved himself to be an invaluable asset to Nobunaga and was soon promoted to the position of samurai. In 1582, he took part in the Battle of Tenmokuzan, where he fought alongside Nobunaga against the forces of another warlord named Takeda Shingen. Though the battle ended in defeat for Nobunaga’s army, Yasuke distinguished himself in combat and earned the respect of his fellow warriors.

Tragedy Strikes

Sadly, tragedy struck soon after the battle. In June 1582, Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his generals and forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). With Nobunaga dead, Yasuke’s position within Japanese society became very precarious. He had no patrons or protectors and quickly found himself an outcast once again. He eventually faded into obscurity and disappeared from history.

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Possible Portrait of Yasuke

Unfortunately, there is no confirmed portrait of Yasuke drawn by a contemporary artist. However, there are a few possible portraits of Yasuke that have been discovered in recent years. One such portrait is an ink-stone box (suzuri-bako) made by a Rinpa artist in the 1590s. The portrait depicts a black man wearing high-class clothing, who does not appear to be subordinate to the Portuguese.

The Life Of Yasuke
Source: Museu do Caramulo.

Another possible portrait of Yasuke is the Sumō Yūrakuzu Byōbu (相撲遊楽図屏風), which was drawn in 1605 by an anonymous artist. The painting depicts a dark-skinned wrestler with a Japanese man in the presence of noble samurai. It is believed that the Japanese man in the painting is Oda Nobunaga or Toyotomi Hidetsugu. While these portraits cannot be definitively proven to be of Yasuke, they provide us with a glimpse into what this historic figure may have looked like.

The Life Of Yasuke 1
This is a possible artwork depicting Yasuke, but unconfirmed.

Yasuke in popular culture

Today, Yasuke is best known for his appearance in popular culture. He has been featured in several anime and manga series, including “Black Lagoon” and “Afro Samurai.” In addition, Yasuke has been the subject of several video games, including the “Yasuke” game for the PlayStation 4. Thanks to his appearances in popular culture, Yasuke’s legend continues to live on.

The life of Yasuke is a fascinating tale of a man who accomplished something that should have been impossible. He rose from humble beginnings to become a samurai warrior, despite the fact that he was not Japanese and did not share the same privileges as other members of Japanese society. His story is a reminder that anything is possible if you have enough skill, courage, and determination.


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