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The African Samurai Who Captivated A Nation

Uncovering the legend of the first foreign samurai in Japan


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During the medieval and early-modern days of Japan, samurai were recognized as the military nobility and officer caste who carry the status of warriors. However, in 1579, a Jesuit named Alessandro Valignano arrived in Japan, bringing with him an African man. The name of this man is unknown, but the Japanese gave him the name Yasuke which would live on as a legend still told about today. Yasuke’s size was undoubtedly impressive, being about 1.88 meters, which is about six feet two inches in height. In 1900, the average height of a Japanese man was 1.57 meters, about five feet two inches.


According to historians, Yasuke was introduced to a local feudal lord named Oda Nobunaga shortly after his arrival. Being able to speak a little Japanese, Yasuke got on well with Nobunaga and told him stories about his life in Africa and India. Over time, Nobunaga, who was an unconventional lord, became fond of Yasuke and granted him the honor of dining with him. When Nobunaga bestowed the rank of samurai on Yasuke, it was something unheard of to have a non-Japanese samurai although other foreigners later became samurai.


However, Yasuke’s story came to an end when Nobunaga was betrayed by a rogue general and committed ritual suicide. Nobunaga tasked Yasuke to decapitate him and bring his head to his son, which resembles a sign of great trust. After that unfortunate tragedy, there is no record of Yasuke, and he was possibly exiled. Yasuke’s story lives on today through a popular children’s book and an upcoming feature film, with Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman playing his legendary role.


Yasuke: The mysterious African samurai