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Book Review: Yasuke: The True Story of the Legendary African Samurai

The remarkable life of history’s first foreign-born samurai, and his astonishing journey from Northeast Africa to the heights of Japanese society.

YasukeA quite astonishing and meticulously researched biography which isn’t written in an academic style yet is suitable for both the general reader and history buff. Thoroughly engaging it reads like a novel and really does bring Yasuke’s story to life in a way that a purely academic tome could not have done.

In the pre-amble the narrative briefly touches on the aftermath of Akechi Mitsuhide’s overthrow of his liege lord Oda Nobunaga at Honnō-ji Temple in Kyōto and, as one of Nobunaga’s loyal vassals, Yasuke’s involvement. The story, broken down into three sections; ‘Warrior’, ‘Samurai’, and ‘Legend’, then turns in ‘Warrior’ to the arrival in Japan in 1579 of Alessandro Valignano, the Catholic Church’s Visitor to the Indies, and, as part of his entourage, his bodyguard and valet Yasuke.

The account covers important issues about Valignano’s background and his activities in Japan including his review of the Church’s infrastructure in there and the development and consolidation of the Church’s policies. This includes his approach to engaging with and converting senior Japanese warlords by encouraging the Jesuits to imitate their lifestyles, as well as mirroring the Church’s hierarchical structure with that of the Buddhist clergy, things which did not go down well with some other Jesuits.

The book also looks at Yasuke’s origins (a slightly contentious issue but probably Nubia, the area around Southern Egypt and Central Sudan) and his journey from Africa to Japan.

Black, very tall and muscular his appearance appealed greatly to the Japanese at the time and the popularity of his public appearances (he was occasionally mobbed to the point of danger to his person) could perhaps be compared to that of a major modern movie star. His popularity gave rise to requests for his admission to private audiences and resulted in him eventually being granted admission, alongside Valignano, into the presence of the great warlord Oda Nobunaga. At this point, having been released from Valignano’s service into that of Nobunaga the book’s second section ‘Samurai’ covers in great detail but in an eminently accessible way the growth of his friendship with Nobunaga, his ascendancy as one of Nobunaga’s vassals, and the granting of samurai status by Nobunaga with the associated privilege of a private house and servants in Nobunaga’s capital Azuchi.

Because of this association there is a lot of information about Oda Nobunaga, the first of the three great unifiers of Japan (the subsequent two being Toyotomi Hideyoshi and then Tokugawa Ieyasu – it is said that Nobunaga put the ingredients together, Hideyoshi cooked it, and Ieyasu ate it). However the star of the story is Yasuke, and deservedly so as the insight into Yasuke’s personality and personal charisma provided in this book proves, part of what makes this such a charming account.

Nobunaga’s capital Azuchi is covered in some detail. The descriptions are a real eye opener and the remains of Azuchi Castle (https://www.azuchi-shiga.com/n-adutijyouato.htm  Japanese only) are a potential draw for visitors to Japan, complimented by the nearby Nobunaga no Yakata Museum (http://bungei.or.jp/ Japanese only) not far from Omihachiman (in itself a fascinating place to visit) on the shore of Lake Biwa.

The second section culminates in the siege of Honnō-ji by one of Oda Nobunaga’s Generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, and Yasuke’s involvement in it and the aftermath, which is where the book’s opening section starts.

Akechi Mitsuhide grave Higashiyama 1 resizeAkechi Mitsuhide grave Higashiyama 2 resize

Above photos: (Akechi Mitsuhide’s grave, Higashiyama, Kyōto © T. Skingle)

Honnō-ji Temple in Kyōto with its associations with what is referred to in English as the Honnō-ji Incident today contains much Oda Nobunaga memorabilia, especially those associated with his obsession with the tea ceremony, and is well worth a visit (http://www.kyoto-honnouji.jp/language/img/leafret_PDF_e.pdf English leaflet).

Honnō-ji Temple resize

Honnō-ji Temple, Kyōto © T Skingle

The third and final part of the book, ‘Legend’, brings the story of Yasuke to a conclusion and looks at the coverage of Yasuke and his adventures in later historical documents and more modern popular culture since his life’s journey ended.

Yasuke Korosuke 1968

Yasuke as portrayed on the cover of Kuro-suke, a children’s book by Kurusu Yoshio, 1968 © Iwasaki Shoten

An absolutely fascinating book and thoroughly recommended for anyone interested in a tale of the derring-do and involvement of a remarkable black African in one of the most pivotal periods of Japanese history. Given the attitude of some modern Japanese and their general implicit bias towards black people in Japan information on and tales of Yasuke’s life and adventures in this book are a welcome riposte, and addition to the English language oeuvre on Japan’s history.

Footnote: A documentary is being planned (see https://yasuke-san.com/) and a movie adaptation is in the offing with Chadwick Boseman (the warrior king from Black Panther from the Marvel movies) producing and starring in the leading role (see https://www.blackfilm.com/read/2019/05/chadwick-boseman-to-play-yasuke-the-first-african-samurai-in-japan/).


Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther © Marvel Cinematic Universe films

Yasuke: The True Story of the Legendary African Samurai

by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard

Sphere Publishing

ISBN-10: 075157161X (ISBN-13: 978-0751571615)

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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