Tom Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai (2003) was not the only non-Japanese to achieve the rank of samurai. In 1579, an African traveller named Yasuke arrived on the shores of Japan in the service of Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, either as a slave or indentured servant. Historians still debate Yasuke’s country of origin, but given the influence of Portugal in Japan at the time and the scope of the Portuguese slave trade, many believe he was originally from Mozambique, whose ports the Portuguese occupied. Additionally, though his original name is unknown, it is most likely that ‘Yasuke’ was a Japanization of his Mozambican birth name (possibly ‘Yasufe’) or a combination of his tribe (Yao) and the Japanese male suffix of ‘-suke’.
Shortly after his arrival, Yasuke found himself in the presence of Japan’s most famous warlord, Oda Nobunaga, who is recognized today as one of the three unifiers of Japan. Impressed by Yasuke’s strength and stature (he stood over 180 cm tall while the average Japanese was around 150 cm), Nobunaga convinced Valignano to release Yasuke around 1581 as a free man so that he could enter the warlord’s service as a bodyguard. Through earning his worth in battle, Yasuke rose from being a lowly page to being bestowed the prestigious rank of samurai within less than a year, and was even invited to dine with Nobunaga, a privilege reserved for only the best of his samurai. He also learned to speak Japanese fluently, was awarded a private residence, and received a ceremonial katana (samurai sword).
In June 1582, Nobunaga was attacked and forced to commit suicide by enemy forces. The enemy decided to spare Yasuke, instead banishing him to the Jesuit Church in Kyoto, where he would live out the rest of his days in obscurity.
By Tre Hunt