The Amazing Story of Yasuke: The Forgotten African Samurai

There is a Japanese proverb which says “For a Samurai to be brave, he must have a bit of black blood.” Yasuke first appears in history in 1579 as an attendant of the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano coming to Japan to visit the missions that had been set up there. Yasuke was around 24 or 25 years old, towered over the Japanese at 6‑foot‑2

His celebrity status soon piqued the curiosity of Oda Nobunaga, a medieval Japanese warlord.

Nobunaga apparently was sceptical that Yasuke’s black skin was genuine and had him remove his shirt and rub his skin to show that it wasn’t ink. Nobunaga was impressed by Yasuke’s height. He is recorded to have been over 6 feet (182cm) tall in an era where most Japanese men were closer to 5 feet (152 cm) tall.

Nobunaga praised Yasuke’s strength and stature, describing “his might as that of 10 men,” and brought him on as his feudal bodyguard. The African’s original name is unknown, but Nobunaga called him Yasuke, most likely a Japanization of his birth name or Christian name.

Nobunaga grew fond of Yasuke and treated him like family as he earned his worth on the battlefield and on patrol at Azuchi Castle. In less than a year, Yasuke went from being a lowly page to joining the upper echelons of Japan’s warrior class, the samurai. Before long, Yasuke was speaking Japanese fluently and riding alongside Nobunaga in battle — an honour reserved only for people Oda must have respected and trusted.

As one of Nobunaga’s right‑hand men, Yasuke gained a handful of enviable privileges during his tenure — including his own private residence, a ceremonial katana sword and the pleasure of dining with Nobunaga — which few samurai were privy to at the time.

In the summer of 1582, a general betrayed Nobunaga, besieged his castle and burned everything to the ground. Ever the loyal warrior, Yasuke quickly joined Nobunaga’s son, Oda Nobutada, to help defend the fortress — but to no avail. The fortress was eventually overrun, and the enemy forces banished Yasuke to a missionary in Kyoto, where he lived out the remainder of his days in obscurity.

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