Yasuke is a Japanese name used to refer to an African samurai who, for a short time, was in the service of the Japanese warlord Nobunaga Oda.
Yasuke, whose real name was “Yasufe” and hailed from the Makua tribe of Mozambique, arrived in Japan in 1579 as the servant of the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who had been appointed the Visitor (inspector) of the Jesuit missions to South and East Asia, an extremely high position, so Yasuke must have been quite trustworthy.
He accompanied Valignano when the latter came to the capital area in March 1581 and caused something of a sensation. In one event, several people were crushed to death while clamouring to get a look at him. Nobunaga heard about him and expressed a desire to see him. Suspecting the black color of his skin to be paint, Nobunaga had him strip from the waist up and made him scrub his skin.
Later that year, Yasuke accompanied a group of Jesuits on a short trip to the province of Echizen. Yasuke could speak some Japanese, so Nobunaga enjoyed talking with him and was also impressed by his strength. At Nobunaga’s request, Valignano left Yasuke with Nobunaga before Valignano left central Japan later that year. Nobunaga treated Yasuke with such great favor that people in Azuchi even said he would probably be made a ‘tono’ (lord). This did not happen, but he was given the position of samurai (shikan).
In June 1582, Nobunaga was attacked and killed in Honnō-ji in Kyoto by the army of Akechi Mitsuhide. Yasuke was also there at the time. Immediately after Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke went to the lodging of Nobunaga’s heir Oda Nobutada and withdrew with him to Nijō Castle. When that too was attacked by Akechi, Yasuke fought alongside the Nobutada forces for a long time. Finally he surrendered his sword to Akechi’s men.
They asked Akechi himself what to do with him. Akechi said that the black man was a beast and did not know anything, and furthermore, he was not Japanese, so they should not kill him but take him to the church [in Kyoto] of the Visitor from India, so they did, much to the relief of the Jesuits there who had worried about him. There is no information about him after that.
The “Lord Nobunaga Chronicle” (信長公記 Shinchōkōki) has a description of Yasuke’s first meeting with Nobunaga. “On the 23rd of the 2nd month [March 23, 1581], a black page (黒坊主 “kuro-bōzu”) came from the Christian countries. He looked about 26 [24 or 25 by Western count] or 27 years old; his entire body was black like that of an ox. The man was healthy and good-looking. Moreover, his strength was greater than that of 10 men.”
His height is said to have been 6 shaku 2 sun (6 ft. 2 in., or 188 cm.); if so, his tall stature would have been very imposing to the Japanese of the day.
What he did during his year of service with Nobunaga is not known. It has been suggested that he may have been a bodyguard or simply a curiosity.
Some accounts say he was killed in Honnō-ji, but this is clearly incorrect, since it contradicts the only source associating him with the Honnō-ji incident at all. Statements that he was sent to a monastery are likely based on Akechi’s sending him to the Jesuit church.