The transatlantic slave trade that Europeans engaged in during the 16th century is said to have given Japan its first black man, who went on to become the first black Samurai in the nation and go down in history.
Yasuke, as he was known, is thought to have been born in Mozambique in or around 1555. He served as a slave for Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano.
In 1579, Yasuke traveled to Japan with Valignano, who was in charge of the Jesuit missions, a learned religious order of the Catholic Church that had its origins in sixteenth-century Spain.
The presence of the black man who was taller than the regular Japanese and believed to have the strength of ten men caused a stir and gave Yasuke an audience with the Japanese hegemon and warlord Oda Nobunaga.
According to a 1581 letter written by Jesuit Luís Fróis to Lourenço Mexia, Yasuke was presented to Nobunaga who suspected his skin was coloured with black ink.
He had him strip and scrub his skin to prove his claim. This was also recorded in the 1582 Annual Report of the Jesuit Mission in Japan.
Nobunaga took a keen interest in Yasuke when he was convinced his skin was in fact black. He added him to his servants and enjoyed talking to him, according to many Japanese books.
The archives of the Japanese Maeda Samurai clan noted that “the black man was given his own residence and a short, ceremonial katana [Samurai sword] by Nobunaga. Nobunaga also assigned him the duty of weapon bearer.”
In 1582, Yasuke fought alongside the Nobunaga-led forces in the tribal battle called Battle of Tenmokuzan. Nobunaga was attacked and he was forced to commit seppuku [Japanese ritual suicide].
Yasuke was eventually captured by the rival clan after Nobunaga ‘s death, who described him as an animal and not Japanese. His life was saved and the Jesuits were returned to him.
No account is given of the rest of Yasuke ‘s life and of how he died. He has, however, been depicted by 16th-century Japanese artists in many artworks who painted him in service and also in sumo wrestling matches.
Yasuke was also included in Yoshio Kurusu ‘s 1968 Japanese children’s historical fiction book, movies, novels, and publications.
In March 2017, a film written by Gregory Widen about Yasuke was announced to be made by Lionsgate Films and Michael De Luca.