“For a Samurai to be brave, he must have a bit of black blood” is an old Japanese proverb.
Almost 500 years ago, a tall African man arrived in Japan. He would go on to become the first foreign-born man to achieve the status of a samurai warrior, and is the subject of two films being produced by Hollywood.
When feudal Japan’s most powerful warlord Nobunaga Oda met Yasuke, a black slave-turned-retainer, in 1581, he believed the man was a god.
Oda had never seen an African before. And like the locals in Japan’s then-capital of Kyoto, he was awed by Yasuke’s height, build and skin tone, according to Thomas Lockley, the author of “African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan.”
“When Yasuke got to Kyoto (with Jesuit missionaries), there was a massive riot. People wanted to see him and be in his presence,” says Lockley, who spent nine years researching and writing the book, which was published last month.
Oda believed Yasuke to be either a guardian demon or “Daikokuten,” a god of prosperity usually represented by black statues in temples. He tried to rub the pigment from Yasuke’s skin, believing it was black ink. Once convinced Yasuke was real, he immediately threw a feast in his honor, says Lockley.
In an era racked by political espionage, merciless assassinations and ninja attacks, Yasuke was seen as an asset. Nobunaga soon made him a samurai – even providing him with his own servant, house and stipend, according to Jesuit records.
Today, Yasuke’s legacy as the world’s first African samurai is well known in Japan, spawning everything from prize-winning children’s books to a manga series titled “Afro Samurai.”
And his legacy continues to spread worldwide. We are everywhere and this is black history not just a fixed American history.
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