The elite Japanese soldiers known as Samurai first appeared around 794 AD, as warrior clans who served the Emperor of Japan.
As time passed and the country was disturbed by political unrest and rebellions, the samurai’s power grew so that by the 12th century they had become a symbol of the power of the Japanese clans. The code of honor of the samurai known as bushido and translated as “the way of the warrior” is the basic code of behavior of Japanese society right up to today.
Known for their integrity, bravery, and loyalty, the skilled warriors, came to dominate Japan until the second half of the 19th century, when they were disbanded, most of them becoming politicians, businessmen or scholars. Samurai translates as “those who serve,” and the samurai were employed as soldiers of the ruling clans, who were in a state of constant war, principally over territory. Most of the samurai were well educated Japanese men, but several members of the elite warrior society were not of Japanese origin. They were known as shibun and proved themselves worthy of carrying the prestigious samurai title.
The first known non-Japanese samurai was named Yasuke, an African slave who rose to join the ranks of the great warriors. Yasuke was the servant of Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit missionary who was given the task to inspect the Jesuit missions in Africa and Asia. Valignano and his party arrived in Japan in 1579 and visited the capital area in March 1581. The people in the streets were amazed by Valignano’s dark colored African companion, as he was probably the first African man they had ever laid eyes upon.
The gathering crowd attracted the attention of Oda Nobunaga, a powerful warlord and a fighter for a unified Japan. Nobunaga was thrilled by the servant’s skin as well, believing him to be covered in ink. The warlord even made the poor servant scrub himself to prove his theory. Fascinated by the servant’s looks and his strength, Oda Nobunaga decided to take him into his service, and in May 1581 he took Yasuke to his castle in Azuchi, where he probably awarded him with the title of a nobleman.
Little is known about the origins of Yasuke, although it is believed that he was born in Mozambique and his real name was Yasufe, later changed into the Japanese version. Yasuke was already trained in battle skills and fascinated the Japanese people with his stature, being 6 feet and 2 inches tall, much taller than his Japanese companions. Nobunaga and Yasuke became close, as the warlord enjoyed his company. It is believed that Yasuke spoke the Japanese language, due to the idea of his former master of getting the Jesuit missionaries closer to the native culture by learning the language of the country where they were serving. The African and Nobunaga spent a lot of time together, so Yasuke was given his own residence, a katana, and was appointed the task of weapon-bearer, thus becoming the first samurai of non-Japanese ancestry.
The service of Yasuke under the rulership of Nobunaga did not last for long. In June 1582 the warlord was attacked by the army of Akechi Mitsuhide, a general in Nobunaga’s army who led a rebellion against his master. Defeated, Oda Nobunaga was forced to perform a seppuku, an honorary suicide, usually reserved for the samurai. After the death of his friend and master, Yasuke joined the forces of his heir Oda Nobutada and fought by his side for several years against the Akechi forces. On one occasion, Yasuke was forced to surrender himself to the enemy, becoming their prisoner. Some legends say that Akechi himself described Yasuke as an illiterate beast who did not know anything, but these claims were false and Akechi spoke of Yasuke in a manner of pity. He ordered his men not to harm the African warrior and deliver the prisoner to the Jesuit temple. The reasons why the rebel general left Yasuke alive may be various. It is possible that he did not want to harm him because Buddha was many times painted as a black skinned man in Japan, or he simply wanted to form friendly relations with the Jesuit mission. The future of Yasuke after his deliverance to the Jesuits is unknown. There were stories about a black African warrior who served under the command of the warlord Arima Harunobu in 1584, but this is probably another man, as there were lots of Africans employed in Japan at this time.
The chronicles of Yasuke are recorded in several written forms, such as the letters of Jesuit priests serving in Japan, the Histoire Ecclésiastique Des Isles Et Royaume Du Japon book written by Francois Solier in 1627, the Lord Nobunaga Chronicle, written by Ota Gyuichi. Yasuke was also mentioned in the articles of Matsudaira Ietada, the diarist of Oda Nobunaga.
In 2013, the television program Discovery of the World’s Mysteries did some research on Yasuke, stating that he was a Makua named Yasufe, but these claims were not supported by any evidence and were more for entertainment and journalistic. Several more non-Japanese samurai are known to have existed historically, such as the French warrior Eugene Collache, William Adams from England, the Dutchman Jan Joosten van Loodensteyn or the South Koreans Kim Yeocheol and Kanji. However, Yasuke will be remembered as the first stranger ever to be honored with the most noble title of a samurai.