The epic tale of Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai has hit bookshelves, giving readers a comprehensive picture of a man who witnessed great moments of history, but whose story has largely been overlooked in official accounts.

African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan, by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard.
480 pages

Yasuke was an African bodyguard who came to Japan with Jesuit missionaries in 1579 and later became a confidant to warlord Oda Nobunaga, who was trying to pacify various fighting clans and, in doing so, unify the nation.

Academic Thomas Lockley, an associate professor at Nihon University College of Law in Tokyo and recently a visiting scholar at SOAS University of London, spent nine years trawling through documents and books and visiting battlefields to build up a never-before-told biography of the man.

Over the years, the African samurai’s story has been portrayed in movies, books, anime and manga. But a lot of the accounts are purely fictional, and Lockley thinks now is the time to present a more accurate portrayal.

“I like to find characters who slip through the cracks of history. Japan is now claiming Yasuke to be one of its own as there is a growing appreciation of Japan’s multicultural heritage,” Lockley says.

While the book is based on primary sources, Lockley has had to make quite a lot of “research-based assumptions” in order to complete the narrative.

It is thought that Yasuke was born as part of the Dinka tribe in the 1550s in what is now South Sudan. He was sold as a child slave and trafficked to India where he became a bodyguard to the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who was charged with developing Catholic missions in the Far East.

They arrived on the island of Kyushu in 1579 and, a few years later, the duo traveled to Kyoto to meet Nobunaga. Hundreds of people in the city turned out to see Yasuke; most had never seen a black person before.

Nobunaga did not believe black people really existed and even rubbed Yasuke’s skin to try to “clean it off.” But from his time on Kyushu, Yasuke had learned to speak Japanese and the two men got on well. Yasuke entertained the warlord with tales from Africa and India. He thrilled Nobunaga with his feats of strength and it is possible the two may have had a sexual relationship.

When Valignano left Japan, he “offered” Yasuke to Nobunaga. Yasuke was subsequently made a samurai — and is generally accepted as the first documented foreign-born retainer to a Japanese lord.

Initially, Yasuke was essentially a bodyguard and page, there to entertain, impress and intimidate visitors to Nobunaga’s court.

“Yasuke had a familiarity and ease with Nobunaga that normal Japanese probably couldn’t provide.” says Lockley.

Yasuke was rewarded with a regular income, servants and an ornate Japanese sword — “all extremely high honors accorded to only the most privileged retainers,” says Lockley.

As part of his inner circle, the African samurai fought alongside Nobunaga against other clans.

However, in 1582, Nobunaga was forced to commit ritual suicide during an attempted coup. Before he died, Nobunaga asked Yasuke to give his head and sword to his son and heir Nobutada. Yasuke did this and then witnessed the son also perform ritual suicide.

After this, Yasuke’s fate is unclear and Lockley had to undertake historical detective work to try and form a picture of the remainder of the samurai’s life.

One possibility is that Yasuke was captured and sent back to Nagasaki to work with the Jesuit community. Evidence points to Yasuke working as a trade advisor to Japanese lords in southwestern Japan and possibly traveling to the Philippines and the Korean Peninsula.

Alternatively, he may have been employed as a pirate, given his ample experience on the high seas and alleged physical strength. Neither outcome is certain, however.

The book also raises the strong possibility that he had descendants that continued to live in Japan. It is plausible that Yasuke had several wives and the book contains an intriguing photo taken in 1864 of a samurai assistant who appears to be of mixed race.

Explaining Yasuke’s enduring appeal, Lockley says, “I think it is the romance and tragedy of someone who rises from nothing to become a hero in a far-off country and then perhaps loses it all again.

“Or, then again, maybe he didn’t and he carried on his success in service to another lord? We just don’t know. And that is another attraction. Where does fact end and myth begin?”

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