‘’The Samurai warrior is one of the most enduring symbols of Japanese culture’’
by J. Leblanc
In 1549 Jesuit Missionaries arrived in Japan hoping to propagate the Christian faith. They knew from past experiences that in order to avoid any suspicion, they would seek to influence the people in power before attempting to convert the masses.
This strategy which was put in place was a great success. In the next 30 years they managed to convert to Christianity six powerful and influential warlords and approximately 100,000 of their subjects.
In 1574, Alessandro Valignano, was sent to the Far East as an inspector for Jesuit missions. His responsibilities were to examine and if necessary reorganise mission structures and methods throughout India, China and Japan. He left Europe on March 21, 1574 aboard the ship “Chagas” and traveled east, arriving in Goa, India, on September 6, 1574. Some four years later he was in China.
On July 25, 1579, Valignano, along with his African attendant, Yasuke, finally arrived in Japan. Once there, Valignano learned that while the Japanese were contemptuous of any foreigner they treated the Jesuits with respect and honour. However, as he quickly find out, this respect for the Jesuits was wearing thin.
Francisco Cabral, the Superior of the Jesuit missions in Japan, had nothing but contempt for the Japanese; he openly belittled their language and customs and declared that they could never be treated as equals. He worked to exclude Japanese men from rising beyond brothers in the Jesuit society. Cabral’s overt racism and un-Christian practices were damaging the Jesuit cause and could not be tolerated. His views clashed with Valignano who advocated equal treatment for the Japanese adherence to local customs and language training.
The inspector imposed sweeping changes for the mission, which were too much for Cabral. He resigned his post and was then literally chased out of Japan.
Valignano continued implementing his reforms; however, even he had his limits when it came to Japanese customs. Although the Japanese bathed daily, his medieval upbringing prevented him from doing the same and he simply suggested that the Jesuits take a bath once a week.
Satisfied that progress was being made the inspection tour continued. On March 23, 1581, Valignano and Yasuke arrived in Kyoto, the capital of Japan at the time. No one had ever seen someone from Africa and Yasuke’s appearance there caused quite the sensation. People lost all modesty and stormed the Jesuit church clamouring to see him. In the chaos that followed, a number of people were crushed to death and the church was nearly flattened.
Yasuke’s arrival piqued the curiosity of Lord Nobunaga who was staying at a nearby temple. This powerful warlord was well known to the Jesuits’ missionaries. He not only provided protection for them but was instrumental in helping them build their church in Kyoto and a seminary in Azuchi. There were, however, arterial motives behind his generous assistance.
Lord Nobunaga was not at all religious and used the Jesuits and Christianity as a means to weaken the influence and power of the Buddhist temples. This relationship also extended into the lucrative trade that the Jesuits had established with the Portuguese traders in Macau. In addition to the importation of western goods, the Jesuits imported weapons and the all important saltpetre, which was used to make gunpowder.
Lord Nobunaga expressed a desire to see Yasuke and once he was before him had Yasuke remove his shirt and scrub his skin. Satisfied that his skin was indeed Black, he seemed to take an interest in him. There is a written account of this meeting in the Lord Nobunaga chronicles. “On March 23, 1581, a Black page came from the Christian countries. The man was healthy and good looking with a good demeanour. Moreover, Nobunaga praised Yasuke’s strength, describing it as that of ten normal men. Nobunaga’s nephew gave him a sum of money at this first meeting.
Matsudaira Ietada would later describe Yasuke as being roughly 6 feet 2 inches tall, about 26 years old with a beautiful black body just like charcoal. In May, Lord Nobunaga invited Yasuke to Azuchi castle. As was to be expected, Yasuke’s demeanour was closely watched. He was given the task of patrolling the castle and then was later assigned to be one of Lord Nobunaga’s bodyguards and weapons bearers.
Later, at the battle of Tenmokuzan, Yasuke fought alongside Lord Nobunaga, which was an honour reserved only for those he trusted and respected. His skills both on and off the battlefield exceeded all of Lord Nobunaga’s expectations, this earned him the coveted title of Samurai warrior. This was an honour rarely given to somebody who was not Japanese. He was now a member of the upper echelons of Japanese society and his mercurial rise was remarkably achieved in just over a year.
With this new title came a salary, a katana sword, samurai clothing and his own private residence. This young man was so well regarded that he ate at Lord Nobunaga’s table, an unheard of privilege even for a samurai warrior.
On June 21, 1582, Lord Nobunaga was resting at Honno-ji temple in Kyoto with a small retinue of bodyguards. He had sent his main army west and had ordered General Mitsuhide army to join them there. However, Mitsuhide betrayed Nobunaga and had his army march on Kyoto and surround Honno-ji temple. The fate of Lord Nobunaga and his bodyguards was sealed. They would not leave the temple alive.
After his death, Yasuke made his way to Nijo castle. Ever the loyal samurai warrior, he rallied and fought alongside Lord Nobunaga’s son until he was defeated by General Mitsuhide’s samurai. After the battle Mitsuhide men brought Yasuke before the general as they did not know what to do with him. Yasuke handed the general his sword which was a western custom of surrender unheard of for a samurai warrior.
A samurai warrior followed the samurai code which meant that they despised the disgrace of surrender and treated those that did surrender as having forfeited all human rights. It was truly honour above life.
Yasuke’s surrender caused quite the dilemma for Mitsuhide. At this point in time, he needed all the friends that he had and could not afford to alienate anybody.
He had just assassinated the most powerful warlord in Japan and there would be consequences. The General also needed to enforce the samurai code and at the same time maintain good relations with the Jesuits. With this in mind Mitsuhide publically declared that he was not at all impressed with Yasuke and dismissed him as a beast (foreigner). Therefore, in his opinion, Yasuke was not a true samurai and could not be expected to know the honour of seppuku (ritual suicide). This decision meant that no harm would come to him.
Yasuke was subsequently banished to the Jesuit church in Kyoto and the Jesuits were overjoyed and thanked God for his return. All of these decisions, however, would not save General Mitsuhide; he died in the battle of Yamazaki 11 days later. From that point on Yasuke seems to have disappeared into obscurity. However, he was not forgotten.
This young man from faraway Africa was involved in events that changed the course of Japanese history. Lord Nobunaga would be known as one of the three unifiers of modern day Japan.
In 1968, Yasuke was featured in a children’s novel Kuro-Suke by Yoshio Kurusu. The following yea, Kurusu received an award for his novel from the Japanese association of writers for children. This African Samurai is also featured in numerous film and drama productions. The video game “Nioh”, featuring Yasuke was released in 2017.
We don’t know if the following Japanese proverb refers to one’s skin color or a completely different meaning for the word “Black.” You be the judge.
“For a samurai to be brave, he must have a bit of Black blood.” There is an interesting Samurai museum located in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo.