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The incredible true story of an enslaved Black man from Mozambique who became the first and only Samurai of African descent in Japanese history.

Kuro-suke - Illustrations by Minoda Genjirô (1969)

~ All the photos of Yasuke in this article are of intricate figurative sculptures that were designed and built by South African artist Nicola Roos, who creates these impressive life-size figures with recycled inner tyre tubes ~

Mask photo (right) taken by Swiss photographer Hennric Jokeit

This story is far from a fictional tale, this is the remarkable true story about the undeniable heroics and bravery of one man against all the odds. Yasuke the Samurai is a mystical and legendary 16th century historical figure, he was likely one of the first Africans to ever be seen in Japan. The legends state that Yasuke managed to rise through the horrors of slavery to reach Japan's highest honour of Samurai and became a retainer who fought alongside one of Japan's greatest warlords, Oda Nobugana.

The saga of Yasuke the samurai, (initially know by the name Yasufe in his East-African motherland) is shrouded in a veil of mystery and the specifics of his early life are hazy. There are two theories, some think that Yasuke was born in Ethiopia, but it's more widely believed that he was born to humble beginnings in Northern Mozambique as a descendent of the Makhuwa warrior tribe, a Bantu ethnic group. The latter theory correlates with the fact that the first African slaves to be trafficked by the Portuguese empire were Mozambican, as their country was currently under the brutal colonial occupation and regime of Portuguese missionaries and traders.

During the European "Age of Exploration", over 500 years ago, the first enslaved Africans began to arrive on the Far Eastern shores of Japan and China under the service of Portuguese missionaries during the Nanban trade. One of these slaves was Yasuke, who was said to have been abducted as a boy from his central African homeland, ripped from his cultural heritage and then sold as a slave to an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Alessandro Valignano, he was one of the first Europeans to bring Christianity over to the Far East.

A Nanban group in Japan with Yasuke for the 1st time

Valignano brought the 25 year old Yasuke with him on an epic missionary expedition to reach feudal Japan and spread the word of Christ. The pair first arrived on the shores of Japan in the year 1579, where a brand new and promising future was unwittingly awaiting Yasuke. For most Japanese people, Yasuke was the first African person they had ever seen and nobody could take their eyes off him. People in Japan at this time knew nothing about the existence of Africa and had never seen dark-skinned people before and soon began to venerate Yasuke like a god. He would soon rise through the ranks, defy all the odds and become the only African to ever achieve Japan's highest honour as a samurai warrior.

Yasuke's arrival in the capital of Kyoto, the beating heart of Japanese civilisation, drew massive crowds of mesmerised and astonished onlookers clambering to catch a glimpse of this strange visitor with his unfathomable stature, towering presence and mysterious skin tone. The Bantu warrior man had likely never seen a sprawling metropolis of such size and bustle, nor had the general public of Kyoto ever seen anyone that looked quite like him.

Yasuke was a cultural revelation and total enigma within the context of feudal Japan and soon became a celebrity on the island. When rumours of a giant man with charcoal skin began to circulate in Kyoto, curious citizens broke down the door to the Jesuit church just to have a look at him. The Japanese folk were enchanted by Yasuke and soon began to venerate him like a deity, but there were others who were scared of the foreigner and began to spread rumours that Yasuke was actually a demon masquerading as a human. The growing fame of his enigmatic outsider soon caught the attention of Lord Oda Nobunaga, the medieval Japanese warlord who was striving to unify and bring peace to war-ravaged Japan. Nobunaga held a lot of sway over Japan at this time and ordered the jesuits to present the African to him.

When Lord Nobunaga first met with Yasuke face to face, the venerated warlord was completely astonished and did not believe that such a man was from this world. Nobunaga was initially convinced that Yasuke was just a Portuguese man who had dyed his skin darker. The Japanese warlord was so baffled by his first encounter with an African that he instructed Yasuke to strip from head to waist so his servants could try to wash out the "black ink" from his skin. After realising that Yasuke's skin was indeed natural, Nobunaga took up a genuine interest in the man's future wellbeing and secured his contract from Father Valignano before bestowing him with his Japanese name. The Lord was in total awe of Yasuke and soon came to appreciate the Buntu man's personal integrity and physical prowess, soon declaring to his generals that Yasuke "possessed the power of ten men".

In the summer of 1581, the Daimyo officially requested that Yasuke enter his service as his personal Samurai bodyguard and be afforded the same privilege as all the other warriors. He granted Yasuke his own house, a sum of money, Japanese armour, robes and a ceremonial katana sword. This was the moment when Yasuke graduated from being an object of Portuguese missionary property to become the Lord's legendary right-hand man, a member of his royal advisory team as the original Afro samurai.

At this time, Yasuke was already able to communicate in Japanese and greatly impressed Lord Nobunaga through their various conversations. Yasuke was more than a mere novelty to Lord Nobunaga, the warlord became very fond of the foreigner and treated him like a member of his own royal family, allowing the African to dine with him, a privilege that very few Japanese samurai were afforded back then. This was how the Warlord and Buntu warrior began their complex and loyally respectful companionship.

Yasuke proved his worth to Lord Nobunaga through working as a security patrolman at Azuchi Castle, and impressed him with his valiant fighting skills on the battlefield. In less than a year, Yasuke was speaking fluent Japanese and riding alongside Nobunaga in his mission to conquer all of Japan. He had transitioned from being the enigmatic bodyguard to joining the upper echelons of Japan's most elite warrior class, the almighty samurai.

In the year 1582, Lord Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his close associates, the samurai Akechi Mitsuhide, who led a full scale attack on the Lord's royal Kyoto castle. Yasuke fought bravely to protect his Lord from harm, but they were clearly outnumbered against Mitsuhide's army. When Lord Nobunaga foresaw the ghost of imminent defeat calling out his fate, he chose to commit seppuku (suicide) rather than face the eternal dishonour of being murdered by a hoard of traitors. This infamous historical event is known as the Honnō-ji Incident.

Yasuke fought bravely in defence of his master, he was one man against a small army of soldiers and continued to fight the battle long after all was lost, until he was finally captured and surrender his sword to the enemy. Instead of killing Yasuke, Akechi Mitsuhide spared his life and chose to send him back to the Jesuit missionaries. In just one year, Yasuke's status as the first African samurai was established and then dismantled with the death of his Lord.

The rest of Yasuke's life after this point is unclear and has been lost through history. We should be thankful that this incredible transformative story of a former Portuguese Mozambican slave who became the first and only African samurai warrior has made it's mark on history. The impact that this mystical and heroic figure made on world history has survived the test of time and his story has passed down throughout the generations and continues to be shared centuries later.

"It was inconceivable how he had existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remain—why he did not instantly disappear." ~ Joseph Conrad, 'Heart of Darkness'

Check out Resident Creative Nicola Roos' full website for more of her awe-inspiring historical figurative sculptor work ~

~ Psychic Garden


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