"Yasuke" by South African artist Nicola Roos
Yasuke (believed to have lived during the 1500s) was a samurai of black African origin who served under the Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga in 1581 and 1582. The name "Yasuke" was granted to him by Nobunaga, although why and when is unclear. His original name is unknown - or, at least, there's no record of it (none that's been found at this time); so it is unclear if Yasuke is a Japanese rendering of his previous name, or a wholly new name granted by his lord.
According to various write-ups on Yasuke, he could've been from Mozambique, Angola or Ethiopia. There is no definite consensus on his origins. In fact, his background is shrouded in mystery.
Yasuke is said to have arrived in Japan in 1579 in the service of an Italian Jesuit named Alessandro Valignano, and caused something of a sensation because of his black skin, which was still foreign to the Japanese at the time. It's said that, in one event, several people were crushed to death while clamoring to get a look at him. In japan, he met warlord Nobunaga who suspected that the dark color of his skin was ink and not natural. Nobunaga reportedly had him strip from the waist up and made him scrub his skin. Satisfied that he was in fact black, Nobunaga took deep interest in Yasuke eventually, and he was allowed to enter Nobunaga's service, which is when available documentation on Yasuke's life seems to really begin.
He was described as healthy and good-looking with a pleasant demeanor. He was also said to be tall (at least 6 ft. 2 in.) and very strong, and was likely an intimidating presence for the Japanese at the time. He would rapidly rise in favor and status, until his became Nobunaga's chief warrior, given his own residence and a ceremonial katana by Nobunaga.
Nobunaga made Yasuke his bodyguard. He was eventually made a samurai in 1581 and stationed at Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle. During this time, he learned to speak Japanese fluently as well.
Yasuke’s career as a samurai would not last long, however. In 1582, Nobunaga’s general, Mitsuhide, tried to overthrow him in a coup. Mitsuhide stormed the temple where Nobunaga was staying in Kyoto. Nobunaga, convinced of his imminent defeat at the hands of his treacherous general, committed Seppuku, ritual suicide. After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke fled to the Azuchi castle and entered the service of Nobunaga's son Odo Nobutada. His son however also committed suicide after suffering defeat at the hands of Mitsuhide.
Victorious, Mitsuhide dismissed Yasuke as “a beast” and not a true samurai, because he wasn't Japanese. Yasuke apparently offered his sword to Mitsuhide, as was customary, and returned to the service of the Jesuit Valignano, before soon falling into obscurity.
Now that you have a little bit of his story, you should know that, announced today, Lionsgate has put into development, a feature film based on Yasuke's life, with "Highlander" creator Gregory Widen on board to script the project which they are currently calling "Black Samurai."
Described as an action drama, Mike De Luca and Stephen L’Heureux are producing, and the film is a co-production between Solipsist Films and De Luca Productions.
“[Black Samurai] is based on the true story of an African whose journey to Japan comes with conflicting background stories,” Gregory Widen tells Deadline, who first reported the news today. “The one I’ve chosen is that he was a slave soldier after the fall of Abysinnian Bengal, a black kingdom run by Ethiopians. He was sold into slavery and found himself in the care of Alessandro Valignano, an Italian missionary. They formed a bond, and when there were complications in Rome, he was sent to Japan and took Yasuke with him. There he met Oda Nobunaga, who was interested in all Western things, and through a series of bizarre events, the Jesuit left Yasukie with the warlord.”
Based on the fact that little is actually known with certainty about Yasuke, any number of story paths can be taken. Widen's quote above suggests he plans to incorporate some of what has been mostly accepted as fact, while taking creative liberties with the parts of Yasuke's story for which there is little documentation.
This is most definitely a project! Lionsgate doesn't have an ETA on it at this time, but there's a potential star making role for an up-and-coming young black actor.
You'll find several different interpretations of Yasuke's appearance online. The sculpture at the top of this post is by South African artist Nicola Roos.