Reader’s Letter: Black samurai

POSTED: 02/11/13 2:46 PM

Dear Editors,

February is, as we know, Black History Month. I’d like to relay what I believe is a little known piece of black history, one that I always found intriguing. It’s the story of the first black African to have stepped on Japanese soil. He was the servant of a prominent Jesuit missionary, arriving sometime around 1579. He caused a huge sensation among the Japanese, who had never seen a black man before. We do not know much about his origins – though it is believed he came from the Congo. Details of his life are rather scant. But he does show up in both Japanese and Jesuit records of the late 1500s. What we do know is that he was given the Japanese name of Yasuke and attracted the attention of the warlord Nobunaga, who was impressed by Yasuke’s ability to speak Japanese and his great strength and imposing physical stature – he reportedly stood six foot two at a time in the world when most men rarely passed five foot five. You can imagine how fearsome he must have appeared to the comparatively small Japanese! A man like him would have been greatly admired in Japan’s warrior culture. Nobunaga took him into his service and, it is said, made him a samurai. He is recorded as having fought loyally for Nobunaga’s clan until the warlord’s death at the hands of a rival. After that we know very little of Yasuke’s fate. Perhaps he settled down with a Japanese wife. Perhaps he died in a later battle. We will never know for sure.

This story has always fascinated me and I sometimes imagine what it would have been like for Yasuke, an African travelling far from his home in the 16th century to the land of the legendary samurai, adopting their culture and ways, fighting for his Japanese warlord until the bitter end. I think it’s a remarkable episode in black history. His name at least has not been forgotten.

Jason Lista

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