In the grand scheme of things, Yasuke wasn’t the most signiﬁcant, nor celebrated samurai of the Sengoku era. He wasn’t one of the three great uniﬁers: Nobunaga Oda, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, or Iyeasu Tokugawa. He also wasn’t one of their powerful rivals. Yasuke wasn’t even credited with a battle win. And yet, fans of Japanese history and the Samurai Warriors series got very excited when Koei Tecmo announced that for the ﬁrst time Yasuke would be a playable samurai in the series. Why was that?
Yasuke is a fascinating ﬁgure because he was one of the very few non-native Japanese people to ascend to the status of a samurai. This was a nation that was isolated, warlike, and not that particularly fondly inclined towards foreigners, so, when we ﬁnd out that a man like William Adams (the “white samurai”) or Yasuke managed to make the ascent, we naturally wonder two things: how did they do it, and what was life like for them?
There is an excellent book by Thomas Lockley and Geoﬀrey Girard that focuses entirely on Yasuke’s story, and it’s closer to a piece of adventure literature than it is a non-ﬁction book at times (and perhaps that’s why they’re going to do a ﬁlm on him, too). Yasuke was a boy soldier in Africa, plucked at a young age from his home in the northern part of the content because of his physical prowess – already he was a powerfully- built giant as a child.
That was how he ended up catching the eye of some missionaries from Portugal, who took him on as an indentured bodyguard (i.e. slave) for a trip to Japan. At that time Japan’s dominant warlord was Nobunaga Oda, who was progressive in many ways, including in his desire to embrace the open world. Christianity had a better time of it under Oda than almost any other before the modern era, and the missionaries took full advantage of this.
This is how Nobunaga met his ﬁrst black man, and he was immediately intrigued. Eventually, Nobunaga would take Yasuke oﬀ the priest’s hands, and Yasuke made the most of his new circumstances, showing his loyalty and rising from the rank of slave right through to the highest status a person could aspire to at that time.
He naturally experienced all kinds of “innocent” racism – the Japanese were almost entirely monocultural and they thought his skin simply needed a clean. But the Japanese back then were also quite short, so you can imagine just how imposing this giant must have been to them. His life as a warrior from childhood also prepared him well for the volatile time that it was in Japan then.
It is unsurprising, then, that Koei Tecmo would make Yasuke in Samurai Warriors 5 a ﬁst-ﬁghting dervish, in reﬂection of the elite martial artist that he must have seemed to be back then in Japan.
Read Yasuke: The True Story Of The Legendary African Samurai (Buy it here!)
From the book description: The man who came to be known as Yasuke arrived in Japan in the 16th century, an indentured mercenary arriving upon one of the Portuguese ships carrying a new language, a new religion and an introduction to the slave trade. Curiously tall, bald, massively built and black-skinned, he was known as a steadfast bodyguard of immense strength and stature, and swiftly captured the interest, and thence the trust, of the most powerful family in all of Japan. Two years later, he vanished…
Note: This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of the Dee Dee Zine. Because we are no longer publishing that magazine, we are republishing the features here for all to read.