The first Non Japanese Samurai was an African slave named Yasuke


In May, Yasuke went with Nobunaga to his castle at Azuchi and popular rumors said he might be ennobled. The diarist, Matsudaira Ietada, described him as six shaku 2 sun (6 ft. 2 in., or 188 cm.). His tall stature would have been very imposing to the Japanese of the time, even to a tall man like Nobunaga. Matsudaira stated that he was named Yasuke.

It is likely that Yasuke could speak considerable Japanese, perhaps due to Valignano’s efforts to ensure his missionaries adapted to the local culture better, because Nobunaga enjoyed talking with him (there is no indication that Nobunaga spoke Portuguese, and it is unlikely that Yasuke would have been able to communicate in classical Chinese, the oriental lingua franca of the time). He seems to have become a close retainer,  perhaps the only non-Japanese ‘warrior’ that Nobunaga had in his retinue, which could account for his rapid rise in favor and status. Yasuke was also mentioned in the prototype of Shinchōkōki owned by Sonkeikaku Bunko (尊経閣文庫), the archives of theMaeda Clan. According to this, Yasuke was given his own residence and a short, ceremonial katana by Nobunaga. Nobunaga also assigned him the duty of weapon bearer.

An artist's illustration of Yasuke, an African slave who traveled with Italian Jesuit missionaries when they arrived in Japan in 1579. Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain
An artist’s illustration of Yasuke, an African slave who traveled with Italian Jesuit missionaries when they arrived in Japan in 1579. Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain


In June 1582, Nobunaga was attacked and forced to seppuku in Honnō-ji in Kyoto by the army of Akechi Mitsuhide. Yasuke was also there at the time and fought the Akechi forces. Immediately after Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke went to the join Nobunaga’s heir Oda Nobutada who was trying to rally the Oda forces at Nijō Castle. Yasuke fought alongside the Nobutada’s forces for a long time, but he eventually surrendered his sword to Akechi’s men. They asked Akechi himself what to do with him. Akechi said that the black man was a beast and did not know anything, and furthermore, he was not Japanese, so they should not kill him but take him to the nanban-dera or nanban-ji (南蛮寺, literally the temple of the southern barbarians, how the Japanese referred to the Jesuit church). It is said that the reason why Akechi spoke it such a manner was a form of pity, i.e. giving a clear reason why not to kill him. Black people were not in fact discriminated against in Japan at this time, in fact, they were even admired, for the Buddha was often portrayed in black in Japanese temples. However, perhaps Akechi also did not want to offend the Jesuits, needing all the friends he could get at this time of political turmoil.  This was much to the relief of the Jesuits there who calmed him down and thanked God for his deliverance. There is no further written information about him after this although Frois, in his ‘History of Japan, does mention a black African gunner in the service of Arima Harunobu in 1584, shortly after Yasuke’s time with Nobunaga. This is highly likely to be a different man, however, and there were many Africans in the service of Japanese and European employers, as well as independently employed men, in Japan at this time.