Yasuke, the Jesuit slave who became the first African Samurai
May 22, 2019 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Yasuke (variously rendered as 弥助 or 弥介, 彌助 or 彌介 in different sources) (circa 1555–1590 CE) (Wikipedia) was an enslaved African taken to Japan in 1579 in the service of the Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano (Beyond Ricci, Boston College), who had been appointed the Visitor (inspector) of the Jesuit missions in the Indies (East Africa, South and East Asia). "When Yasuke got to Kyoto (with Jesuit missionaries), there was a massive riot. People wanted to see him and be in his presence" (Thomas Lockley, quoted by CNN), as he was one of the first Africans seen by many of the Japanese. But he quickly went from novelty to trusted and valued retainer to, and warrior for, the Japanese hegemon and warlord Oda Nobunaga in 1581 and 1582 (Wikipedia).

Japan's history of interaction with outside cultures is complicated, moreso by the fact that the first the first Europeans to visit were slave-traders and priests, and later Anglo Americans who perpetuated the racist stereotypes of darker skinned people, as accounted in synthesis and review by Collin Rusneac (The Sun's Burial) of Gary P. Leupp’s Images of Black People in Late Mediaeval and Early Modern Japan, 1543-1900 (Japan Forum, paywalled with excerpt) and Yukiko Koshiro’s Beyond an Alliance of Color: The African American Impact on Modern Japan (Duke University Press, paywalled with excerpt).

That said, Yasuke lived in a period when "black people were allowed to move freely, take Japanese wives, buy Japanese slaves and were even recruited in the service of various daimyō," as summarized by Rusneac. And the details of his life, though limited, are more complete than other Africans in Japan at the time. "Yasuke really comes to the fore because he served Oda. We have sources on his life, name, deeds and character," says Lockley. "Others like him weren't that well documented, we can't bring a picture of their lives."
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Also, Chadwick Boseman is set to play him in the near future.

Such an interesting life. I'm pretty sure he died with Nobunaga at the incident at Honnoji Temple, but sometimes I wonder what his life would have been post-Nobunaga.
posted by ishmael at 8:00 AM on May 22, 2019 [11 favorites]

Oop! Should have read the Yasuke wiki entry. I just remember a few instances in popular media where he dies with Nobunaga.
posted by ishmael at 8:05 AM on May 22, 2019

Given that there were Japanese samurai serving as mercenary guards in Spanish Mexico from 1603 on, one could speculate that after his disappearance, Yasuke went into far exile....

"So that is why my character in your historical South American RPG game is an African samurai. You can't prove it didn't happen. "
posted by happyroach at 12:07 PM on May 22, 2019 [27 favorites]

Given that there were Japanese samurai serving as mercenary guards in Spanish Mexico from 1603 on

Wait, what? It is documented, so it is true, though their exact number is not known. (short r/AskHistorians thread, with links to outside resources)
posted by filthy light thief at 12:43 PM on May 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

thank you for posting this, it's amazing
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 1:16 PM on May 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Supplemental: The first first-language English teacher in Japan was a Métis man, Randald MacDonald, who did it out of a sense of adventure.
posted by mobunited at 2:31 PM on May 22, 2019 [7 favorites]

This knowledge makes me hate all those movies with made up white guy samurai EVEN MORE THAN I ALREADY DID.
posted by snofoam at 7:29 PM on May 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

Also, Chadwick Boseman is set to play him in the near future.

Aw, man, this would make such an awesome NHK Taiga Drama. I'd love to watch a whole year of that story.
posted by Metro Gnome at 8:06 PM on May 22, 2019

I'm bothered by the title of this post for a couple of reasons. First, it's not "slave" but "enslaved person".

Second, it's not confirmed that Yasuke was an enslaved person when he arrived in Japan. He was likely an indentured servant to Valignano, and enjoyed some status and responsibility in the Jesuit's retinue. Small difference, but I thought it was important to point out.
posted by JamesBay at 8:50 PM on May 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

This short essay is from 2011. It's not a new discussion:

By changing from the use of a name – slaves – to an adjective – enslaved– we grant these individuals an identity as people and use a term to describe their position in society rather than reducing them to that position. In a small but important way, we carry them forward as people, not the property that they were in that time. This is not a minor thing, this change of language.
posted by JamesBay at 8:15 AM on May 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

JamesBay, thanks for this point, I'll used different terms going forward.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:59 PM on May 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

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