Yasuke, the First Western Samurai in the History of Japan
Art by Kanō Domi portraying exotic animal traders – circa 16th Century, Public Domain
While James Clavell’s Shogun was based on the well-documented life of the first English samurai, William Adams, a far lesser known story is that of the first samurai in Japan from the Western world – Yasuke, an African man who started as a vassal of a Jesuit missionary and later became a samurai for Oda Nobunaga, the powerful daimyo lord whose ambition it was to unify Japan.
Who was Yasuke
Yasuke, whose non-Japanese name is not known, arrived in Japan in 1579 as the servant of the Italian Jesuit, Alessandro Valignano. His origins were not recorded so where he actually came from, Portuguese Mozambique or possibly Ethiopia, will be forever in question. In Japan he attracted instant attention from the locals, for he was one of the few African men they had ever seen. It was even recorded that several people were injured in the rush to see him.
Yasuke and Oda Nobunaga
All of this notoriety brought him to the attention of the daimyo Oda Nobunaga, who wanted to see Yasuke for himself. While there is no art to show us what he looked like, it was recorded that Yasuke’s skin was the “color of charcoal”, and he was noted to be 6’2″ in height, good looking and of good temper, and to have the strength of 10 men.
When they first met, Lord Oda believed him to have dyed his skin with ink, and even had Yasuke remove his shirt and scrub his skin before him to remove the color. Matsudaira Ietada, a samurai and diarist of the time, wrote that the name Yasuke was given to him by Nobunaga himself and in short time he became Nobunaga’s bodyguard, then made a samurai and was named the arms bearer of the daimyo.
Yasuke and the Honnō-ji Incident
Yasuke was present when Nobunaga was betrayed by his general Akechi Mitsuhide in Kyoto in 1582 and fought to defend him. Unable to escape, Nobunaga committed seppuku disembowelment and burned the temple of Honnō-ji to the ground around him. Yasuke then gave his loyalty to Nobunaga’s eldest son Nobutada. They were pursued by Akechi’s army and when Nobutada was also forced to commit seppuku, less than 24 hours after his father, Yasuke was forced to offer his sword to the superior forces of the enemy.
As mysteriously as Akechi betrayed the Oda clan, he did not betray Yasuke. Although his words were unkind, calling Yasuke a beast and unfit to be a samurai, Akechi did not have him beheaded as was the ritual of the day for defeated warriors. He showed Yasuke mercy and had him returned to the “church of the southern barbarians”, the Japanese name for the Jesuit Mission then.
Afterwards nothing is recorded of the fate of this incredible man who had an almost meteoric rise from a servant to samurai in only 3 years. Although an African man was serving as a gunner on a ship of another daimyo two years later, it was never confirmed if this was Yasuke or another man.