Researcher sheds light on mystery of African samurai Yasuke made famous by Netflix anime


TOKYO – Nearly 450 years ago, a certain samurai warrior won the affection of 16th-century Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga, who nearly unified much of mid-to-late war-torn feudal Japan of the sixteenth century. But this samurai, whose name was Yasuke, did not come from a long line of Japanese warriors; he was from Africa and was brought to Japan by a Jesuit missionary.

In the spring of 2021, streaming giant Netflix released an anime series based on the extraordinary life of Yasuke, and there have also been moves for a Hollywood film adaptation. The Mainichi Shimbun delved into the mystery surrounding African samurai.

The six-episode first season of the Netflix series “Yasuke” was released worldwide on April 29, 2021. It is set during the Warring States period of Sengoku, when rival warlords fought for control of the Japan. The first episode reveals that Yasuke, the strongest ronin ever – a masterless samurai – leads a quiet life after too many days in battle. However, when a local village turns into a war zone, he takes back his katana sword.

In March 2021, prior to the series’ launch, “Yasuke” director LeSean Thomas made the following comment regarding the inspiration behind the anime:

“I first learned about Yasuke’s role in Japanese history about ten years ago. The children’s book, Kuro-suke by Kurusu Yoshio (reporter’s annotation: 1968, Iwasaki Shoten), had images that piqued my curiosity. Finally learning that he was ‘not just a fictional character, but a real person, was exciting material for an adventure story.’

Thomas Lockley, associate professor at Nihon University, uses a map to talk about African samurai Yasuke in Tokyo’s Chiyoda district on April 25, 2022. (Mainichi/Ririko Maeda)

The claim that Yasuke was originally from Mozambique is an important theory. However, Thomas Lockley, 44, an associate professor at Nihon University School of Law in Tokyo, who has been researching African samurai for more than 10 years, said: “His appearance and skin color are not not those of someone from Mozambique. I would say he comes from somewhere near (now) South Sudan.”

He added: “I believe that as a child he was captured in Africa and sold in the slave market. But I believe he was a freedman or a mercenary by the time he arrived in Japan.”

Yasuke arrived by ship at the present-day port of Kuchinotsu on the Shimabara Peninsula of Nagasaki Prefecture in 1579, accompanying Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, possibly as his bodyguard. Along with the Jesuit, Yasuke is said to have visited missionary outposts and met Christian feudal lords in southwestern Japan.

In 1581, Valignano and his party traveled to Kyoto, then capital of Japan, as an embassy. The party is believed to have sought to meet Nobunaga, then the most powerful lord in the land after defeating his closest rivals, to ask for his help in promoting Christianity.

At a towering height of 180 centimeters and with his dark skin, Yasuke must have caught people’s attention. Crowds formed in Kyoto to see him, and news of this uproar eventually reached Nobunaga. Then, together with another Jesuit, Yasuke met the great warlord at Honno-ji temple in Kyoto.

In his “Shincho Koki” or “The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga”, Ota Gyuichi, servant of Nobunaga, described Yasuke as having superhuman strength. Nobunaga, who encouraged martial arts, would have particularly enjoyed sumo wrestling. A folding screen believed to have been illustrated in the early Edo period (1603-1867) features an illustration of a man, who appears to be black, participating in sumo. Lockley thinks the black man is Yasuke, while a man sitting near him watching is Nobunaga.

Afterwards, Yasuke started serving Nobunaga and was promoted. However, about a year and three months later, in June 1582, a Nobunaga general named Akechi Mitsuhide rebelled and pushed the warlord to end his life at Honno-ji Temple. When Mitsuhide attacked with 13,000 troops, Nobunaga is said to have ordered Yasuke to escape and go to Nobutada, Nobunaga’s son and successor.

“Yasuke: In Search of the African Samurai” (c) Thomas Lockley (author) Yoshiko Fuji (translator)/Ohta Publishing Co.

Yasuke fought to protect Nobutada, but once the battle was lost, he obeyed the order to present his sword to a vassal of Mitsuhide. Yasuke was not killed by Mitsuhide, and was instead sent to a Christian church and a Jesuit missionary outpost. What happened to him after that is unknown.

Lockley, one of the few scholars dedicated to the study of African samurai, published the book “Yasuke: In Search of the African Samurai” (Ohta Publishing Co.) in Japan in 2017. The American and British versions of the book have also attracted attention. , and Yasuke became more widely known overseas.

The researcher commented, “I think Yasuke’s enigmatic life, which so ignites people’s imaginations, now gets so much attention because of the age of the internet and its instant access to mountains of information. . As our society becomes more and more multicultural, it is likely that Yasuke will be recognized more as a pioneer in this field.”

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Thomas Lockley was born in London in 1978. He graduated as a foreign language teacher from the University of Sheffield and completed a postgraduate degree at the Open University. He came to Japan in 2000 and was appointed as an associate professor at Nihon University School of Law in 2019. He majors in language education theory and teaches Japanese history in English.

(Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Goto, Digital News Center)


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