Early Modern Times – an African samu-rite of passage

Early Modern Times - an African samu-rite of passage

Dear readers,

I am pleased to return to Early Modern Times after several weeks’ absence! Today’s post is devoted to Yasuke, a sixteenth-century African samurai who was also Japan’s first foreign samurai warrior (pictured above is Kenneth Trotter’s illustration of what Yasuke might have looked like in his full samurai armour and regalia). This recent article notes that Yasuke, who served under Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga, is now the subject of two upcoming Hollywood films, one of which is expected to star Chadwick Boseman of the movie Black Panther. He is a fascinating symbol of cross-cultural encounters in early modern Japan who will soon be much better known.

Yasuke was unique among late sixteenth-century samurai not only because of his foreign provenance but also his physical stature among his fellow bushi (Japanese warriors). In 1579, the samurai Matsudaira Ietada reported in his diary that ‘His height was 6 shaku 2 sun [roughly 6 feet, 2 inches (1.88m)]… he was black, and his skin was like charcoal’. One can well imagine short Japanese poems of 5-7-5 syllables celebrating this groundbreaking and tall samurai, which would be high coups.

Who was Yasuke, and how did he end up a member of the Japanese noble warrior class? Most historians think he may have originated in Mozambique, though others suggest he was born in Ethiopia or Nigeria. Whatever his place of origin, indisputable was his African-do attitude. He seems to have accompanied the Jesuit mission in Japan, headed by Alessandro Valignano, in 1579 to 1582. This missionary was known for both his religious zeal and super-brief press conferences–he would speak only for a Valignano-second. Some have speculated that Yasuke was a slave, though two filmmakers preparing a documentary on him counter that it is implausible that he would have been made a samurai–since such a status would require lifelong training as a warrior. Genealogists at Early Modern Times’s Department of Afro-Samurai Lineages have determined that he was a remote ancestor of Woody Allen and other neurotic personalities, confirming his worrier background.

After his arrival in Japan, Yasuke attracted the interest of Oda Nobunaga, the first of three warlords ruling Japan towards the end of the long and bloody Sengoku (‘warring states’) period–depicted in such iconic films as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Given the chaos of the times, it is no surprise that the sweaty warlord Nobunaga was beset by smelly feet and thus required to wear Oda-eaters in his sandals. Yasuke appears to have charmed Nobunaga with his knowledge of the Japanese language and stories of Africa and India (where he resided prior to coming to Japan). Moreover, unlike the Jesuits, he did not seek to convert the Japanese to Christianity, whereas the Catholic missionaries were Ja-panned by hostile critics. So pleased was Nobunaga that he may have asked his nephew to forward a pile of cash to Yasuke after their initial encounter. Clearly, the Japanese ruler gave the African money happy returns.

According to the documentary filmmakers, Nobunaga was fascinated by Yasuke. The warlord enjoyed wearing European clothes and meeting those who were both thoughtful and skilled in the fine and martial arts. He would have been intrigued by Yasuke, who apparently performed heroic Swahili poetry called Utenzi, which may have resonated with Nobunaga’s own love of Noh drama: for him, there’s no business like Noh business. Yasuke soon entered Nobunaga’s inner circle, becoming his dining companion; and the warlord particularly admired Yasuke’s physical prowess. Yasuke was thus soon granted samurai status, since he certainly had the samu-right stuff. This was an unprecedented honour bestowed on a foreigner, and led to other foreigners receiving such a status after Yasuke’s time. Yasuke bravely fought in Nobunaga’s service, and his unswerving loyalty was demonstrated by the fact that he always followed his Oda’s.

Nobunaga, however, was betrayed by his general Akechi Mitsuhide in 1582. The latter set his lord’s palace on fire, trapping Nobunaga in his room. This Mitsuhideous act led to Nobunaga carrying out ritual suicide. On one account, it was Yasuke who was given the honour of beheading Nobunaga and delivering the warlord’s sword and head to Nobunaga’s son. This was a sad duty, but at least Yasuke got a head in the world.

Yasuke went into exile, perhaps to the Jesuit mission in the ancient city of Kyoto. What may have happened in the rest of his life is the stuff of legend. A children’s book by Kurusu Yoshio imagines Yasuke being led to a temple, where he wept while thinking upon his parents in Africa. Another tale, according to Early Modern Times’s staff of researchers, has him sailing to Hawaii and singing about his days in Japan while playing small string instruments: he became a master of the Yasukelele.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Samurai-and-coke Studies Program

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