An African Slave Became the First Non-Japanese Man to Become a Samurai
An African Slave Became the First Non-Japanese Man to Become a Samurai

An African Slave Became the First Non-Japanese Man to Become a Samurai

Stephanie Schoppert - June 3, 2017

It wasn’t just the color of Yasuke that impressed the warlord, it was his size and strength. Some accounts put his height at 6 feet 2 inches or 188 cm. This would mean that Yasuke would have towered over Japanese men, even tall ones like Nobunaga. The warlord also found Yasuke to be as strong as that of ten normal men. Given his stature, color and strength, it is easy to see why a cunning warlord like Oda Nobunaga might want Yasuke standing beside him in battle.

Yasuke from then on became the personal bodyguard and chief warrior of Oda Nobunaga. He was officially made a samurai and one of the proudest warriors under Nobunaga. He remained a national sensation and anywhere he went he was met with fascination. He is believed to be one of the first non-Japanese people to ever be granted the honor of samurai if not the very first.

After that in 1581, he was put into the service of Nobunaga he was taken to Nobunaga’s castle at Azuchi and there were some who believed that the former slave would even be ennobled. Yasuke was given money by Nobunaga’s nephew and was welcomed into Nobunaga’s forces. Yasuke was present at the Battle of Tenmokuzan and later met with Tokugawa Ieyasu whose forces were immensely impressed with the sight of Yasuke.

Yasuke was also something of a conversationalist. Nobunaga was said to enjoy long talks with Yasuke which many take to believe that Yasuke was fluent in Japanese. It is likely that Yasuke learned it from Valignano who wanted his Jesuits to be able to easily assimilate into Japanese culture. This is the only possibility as Nobunaga would not have known Portuguese and Yasuke would not have known classical Chinese.

Yasuke became a man of such importance to Nobunaga he was given his own residence. He was also given a short, ceremonial katana which mark his stature as a Samurai. He was the only non-Japanese warrior that was kept in the retinue of Nobunaga. At some point, he was also assigned the duty of weapon bearer.

An African Slave Became the First Non-Japanese Man to Become a Samurai
Oda Nobunaga and Yasuke.

His life by Nobunaga’s side was not to last because in 1582 Akechi Mitsuhide, Nobunaga’s general attempted to overthrow him in a coup. Mitsuhide stormed the temple where Nobunaga was staying in Kyoto.

Nobunaga was convinced that his end was upon him and therefore committed Seppuku, the ritual suicide of the samurai. Yasuke was not willing to follow suit and therefore fled to Azuchi castle. It was at the castle that he entered into the service of Oda Nobunaga’s son, Oda Nobutada.

Again things were short-lived for Yasuke because Oda Nobutada also committed ritual suicide after suffering a defeat of his own against Misuhide. Yasuke when faced with Misuhide and his men refused to commit suicide in the way that the two other samurai leaders had and instead turned over his sword.

It was because of his refusal to commit suicide that Mitsuhide called him a”beast” and not a true samurai or a true Japanese. Because Yasuke had no honor Mitsuhide decided not to kill him but rather send him to the “Temple of Southern Barbarians” which was what the Japanese called the Jesuit church.

There are some who credit this as a sign of pity due to the reverence for Yasuke and black people in Japan (Buddha was sometimes portrayed in black) and because Mitsuhide feared upsetting the Jesuits. With Japan now in turmoil he would need all the allies he could get. For their part the Jesuits were overjoyed at the return of Yasuke and praised God for his safety.

Once Yasuke was no longer a samurai no more was written about him. He likely returned to obscurity with the Jesuits. There were some stories about an African man working as a gunner in the service of Arima Harunobu but there is nothing that links that man to Yasuke other than it was close to the time that Yasuke left the service of Nobunaga.