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The Life Story of Yasuke, the Only Black Samurai in Japanese History

Yasuke black samurai
Have you ever watched the Afro Samurai anime? For me who likes action anime, Afro Samurai is quite an impressive spectacle. In it there are many scenes of sadistic battles that correspond to the harsh life of feudal times in Japan. Not to mention that the main character, Afro, has a different appearance from the samurai in general. His hair was frizzy like broccoli and his skin was black.

At first, I thought that Afro was just the imagination of a mangaka who wanted to create an anti-mainstream samurai character. After all, samurai are widely recognized by the public as a symbol of Japanese history and culture.

But I am only human; my assumption was wrong. Because in fact, not only Japanese people can become samurai. Even Japanese history has recorded the existence of Yasuke, the only black samurai who lived around the 16th century. So, was Afro Samurai inspired by the legend of Yasuke? Maybe. But I think it will be even more interesting if we both explore the life story of Yasuke, Afro Samurai from the real world.

Actually not much is known about Yasuke's early life before arriving in Japan. Even so, historical records from 1579 say that Yasuke came with an Italian Jesuit missionary, Alessandro Valignano. But there is no information that says whether Yasuke was a follower, servant, or just a slave ordered by Valignano.

Based on the book Sincho Koki (Oda Nobunaga's diary) and the records of missionaries at that time, Yasuke is thought to have come from Mozambique or Bekongo (as ancient Congo was known), a region known as the center of the slave trade at that time.

Anyway, Yasuke's arrival immediately made the Japanese public in an uproar. Not surprisingly, because it was the first time Japanese people saw black people. Plus, Yasuke had a posture that made Japanese people look like dwarves. It is stated that Yasuke's height reached 6 shaku 2 sun or about 188 cm.

In March 1581, Yasuke accompanied Valignano to Kyoto. It is said that Yasuke's presence in Kyoto made a huge crowd of people, until some of the crowd were trampled. It was there that Yasuke met the daimyo (aristocrat) who almost unified Japan, Oda Nobunaga.

When he first met Yasuke, on March 23, 1581, to be precise, Nobunaga was initially convinced that the black color on Yasuke's skin was paint. Because he couldn't believe it, Nobunaga even asked Yasuke to take off his clothes, then wipe his skin with a wet cloth. Yup, after wiping Yasuke's body here and there, Nobunaga finally believed that Yasuke was indeed black.

Yasuke's meeting with Nobunaga started the career of the first named as a samurai. The warlord was so impressed with Yasuke's stature and strength, who was said to be the equivalent of 10 men. Without further ado, Nobunaga immediately asked Valignano to leave Yasuke with him to become a samurai. It was the first time a daimyo had made an African soldier.

Nobunaga's decision shocked the people of Kyoto. The residents were eager to see the foreigner who had stunned the great Nobunaga. And sure enough, once Yasuke entered the city, he was immediately invaded by a crowd of curious citizens. Well, even though Yasuke's appearance in the city had sparked a stir, luckily Yasuke was quick to adapt to his new environment.

Under Oda Nobunaga, Yasuke was able to learn Japanese quickly. He had a personality that the inhabitants of Azuchi fortress liked, and the master was no exception. Nobunaga himself once said that Yasuke was one of the warriors he liked the most.

Yasuke's actions as a samurai were recorded when he accompanied Nobunaga on a mission to unite the entire raging plains of Japan. Nobunaga certainly hopes that Yusuke will play his role in the battle against countries that oppose Nobunaga's rule. One of them was in the Tenmokuzan War in 1582. At that time, Yasuke joined the battlefield against the rebellious Takeda clan. In the end, Nobunaga won the battle.

But later in the same year, the war situation began to change after Nobunaga was betrayed by his own general, Akechi Mitsuhide. The betrayal resulted in defeat for Nobunaga's camp. And because of the Japanese warrior culture at that time, Oda Nobunaga chose seppuku instead of falling into enemy hands.

Not only did Nobunaga commit suicide, Mitsuhide also managed to subdue Yasuke when he and his troops invaded Azuchi Fortress. But Yasuke wasn't allowed to do seppuku. The few remaining Azuchi warriors preferred to surrender themselves to the opposing side.

In Mitsuhide's eyes, Yasuke was neither part of the nation nor the traditions of his ancestors. He is just a foreigner who he thinks it is inappropriate to practice various Japanese-style traditions, including seppuku. After conquering the fortress, Mitsuhide stripped Yasuke's samurai status and sent him to a Jesuit church dubbed the Southern Barbarian Temple.

Up to this point, there are no historical records that tell the continuation of Yasuke's story. It is not certain whether Yasuke will rejoin Valignano or choose his own path in life. Trading or farming maybe? Or even start a startup? Hmm… unfortunately no one knows.

Although the beginning and end of Yasuke's life are shrouded in mystery, the precious moments he became a samurai have left their mark in Japanese history and culture. Even today and beyond, Japanese society still remembers Yasuke as the first foreign-blooded samurai.