The Real Yasuke Is Far More Interesting Than His Netflix Show
Japan’s fascination with the true tale of a Black samurai goes back decades.
The new Netflix animated series Yasuke is a fanciful mess. Set in 16th century Japan, it features mechs, magic, evil Jesuits, zombie samurai, and Lovecraftian evils from outside space-time. There is lots of spurting blood and confused references to garbled honor codes. It’s less history than half-cooked genre sludge.
There is one aspect of the series that is historically accurate though: the titular main character, voiced by LaKeith Stanfield. Yasuke, a towering African man who became the first Black samurai in Japanese history, was a real person. His story is fascinating—so much so that you wonder why producer LeSean Thomas and Japanese animation studio MAPPA decided it was necessary to throw all the tech and sorcery at it. Still, the addendums and variations are perhaps inevitable. Yasuke’s story has been told often before, and each telling has built on relatively sparse historical data to create a Yasuke whose sword serves the teller’s particular historical moment.
The real Yasuke was probably born in Mozambique, Ethiopia, or Sudan in the 1550s. He would have been kidnapped and enslaved as a boy and sold to Portuguese traders. He became a soldier or fighter and probably was granted at least provisional emancipation. He entered the service of Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit missionary, and joined Valignano on his mission to Japan in 1579 as a bodyguard. He seems to have picked up the language quickly.
In 1581, Yasuke was introduced to Oda Nobunaga, the Japanese lord who was well on his way to reuniting Japan. Nobunaga—who loved European fashions and foreign knowledge—was intrigued by Yasuke’s skin color. He had never seen a Black man before and at first assumed the color was some sort of ink that would wipe off.
Nobunaga was so taken with Yasuke he took him into his own service. Eventually, Nobunaga made Yasuke a full samurai, with his own household and servants. Yasuke fought with Nobunaga in several battles, including his last, when Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed him and forced Nobunaga to commit ritual seppuku. Mitsuhide did not kill Yasuke though. Instead, probably to try to enlist European support, he returned Yasuke to the Jesuit mission. That is the last certain mention of Yasuke in historical records.
That historical record is sparse. A number of Jesuit sources mention Yasuke. So does The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga by Ota Gyuichi, one of Nobunaga’s administrators, in which Yasuke is mostly treated as a passing curiosity who illustrates Nobunaga’s curiosity and generosity.
Yasuke’s story was largely forgotten in Japan for some 300 years after that. Modern day audiences were first reintroduced to him in Yoshio Kurusu’s 1968 children’s book Kurosuke, illustrated by Mita Genjiro. Kurusu still dwells on Yasuke’s exotic difference; she includes a scene of Nobunaga trying to scrub off Yasuke’s pigment. But she’s also inspired by contemporary African freedom movements. In an afterword, she denigrates “European empires, fat merchants and bearded generals” who carved up Africa. Passages when Yasuke reminisces about and misses his homeland evoke a burgeoning African nationalism, which no doubt resonated in a Japan that was under U.S. occupation. (Yasuke has become a popular figure in U.S. children’s books as well.)
Another important novel about Yasuke in Japanese is Shusaku Endo’s 1973 novel, Kuronbo. Endo is much less sympathetic to Yasuke than Kurusu and portrays him as a confused bumbler who relies on a girl named Yuki to mother him. Endo seems to have been influenced by racist portrayals of Black people, perhaps especially in Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin series, which was very popular in Japan. The novel’s title is also a Japanese racial slur somewhat equivalent to the n-word in English.
A far different Black samurai is portrayed in Marc Olden’s 1974 Black Samurai. It’s not clear whether or not Olden, who was African American, knew about Yasuke or whether he came up with the idea of the first Black samurai independently. His novel is set in the 1970s and features Robert Sand, a Black U.S. soldier on leave in Japan who goes to the aid of an elderly man being harassed by white racists. The man is a sensei who doesn’t need Sand’s help. But he admires the soldier’s bravery and trains him. The story is a pulp thriller influenced by the Blaxploitation genre and the Black Power movement. (Olden had also written a biography of Black activist Angela Davis.) If Yasuke was a source, he’s been changed from a footnote in history to an icon of Black empowerment who regularly and satisfyingly beats the snot out of openly racist white people.
Since the 1990s, Yasuke, in various fictionalized forms, has appeared with some regularity in Japanese popular culture. He pops up in the 2011 anime Hyouge Mono, for example, and in the 2017 video game Nioh.
In English, Yasuke was the subject of an excellent popular biography by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard titled African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan. Published in 2019, the book (which provided a wealth of information for this article) tries to place Yasuke in a global context, following his journey from Africa through (possibly) India and Europe and to East Asia. Lockley and Girard’s Yasuke is a cosmopolitan man who speaks a dozen languages fluently and whose travels have left him more familiar with heavy artillery tactics than virtually anyone in Japan. Yasuke isn’t a curiosity but a representative of the wider, varied global culture and economy that Japan was, and is, embedded in.
You can see glimmers of this global Yasuke in the new Netflix animated series as well. Yasuke is one among a number of immigrants living in Japan in the story; there’s a Jesuit mastermind, a Russian werewolf, and an African sorcerer, among others. This diversity is contrasted with a Japanese ethnonationalism that has more to do with contemporary U.S. racial politics than with the relatively open Japan of the period. Nobunaga’s decision to promote Yasuke in this telling was hugely controversial, violating “the old ways” (a bow to the Make America Great Again movement), and leading to what is essentially a fascist rebellion.
An antifascist Yasuke sounds pretty interesting. Unfortunately, the anime gets distracted and ends up focusing on the story of Saki (voiced by Maya Tanida), a chosen and stereotypical magical girl with great power. She’s the one with the destiny; Yasuke is there to help her out rather than the other way around.
The anime’s uncertainty about how to center Yasuke in his own story is frustrating. But it is perhaps a sign that Yasuke remains a figure who is hard to fit into standard understandings of the past or present, whether American or Japanese or—as in this case—collaborative. A Black samurai continues to upend expectations some 400 years after he came to Japan. Hopefully he’ll continue to trouble and inspire creators for another century—or five.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.