When the black solider Yasuke arrived in Japan, he became a sensation and later a respected samurai. Thomas Lockley shares how he first encountered the incredible man at the center of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan.
It was sometime in 2009 when, while reading a Wikipedia article about William Adams, the English navigator who became a samurai, I happened to notice a link to a page on Yasuke, an African samurai. My interest piqued, I clicked to find out more, and his story drew me in immediately. Like Adams, Yasuke rose from a humble background abroad to greatness in Japan, but unlike Adams, he actually fought in battles at the side of Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s greatest warriors who helped unify the country in the 16th century.
I started to write a novel about his life in 2010, but other things got in the way, and the project dropped by the wayside. Nevertheless, I kept on researching, and Yasuke’s world and time started to reveal themselves to me. It was an era when humanity was on the move, the first global age of navigation when people from all over the world were traversing the seas. That surprised me, as I didn’t remember learning about the globe-trotting exploits of Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Arab, Jewish, African or Japanese people! Most books made it seem as if only Europeans were “discovering” the globe at this time.
I found out that people of African descent around the globe formed royal houses in India, were present at the Chinese court, held noble ranks in Europe and were employed virtually everywhere as skilled professionals such as interpreters, divers, musicians, navigators, merchants and warriors. Yasuke was not unique for being an African success story far from home. Another stereotype, the one that claims all Africans outside their home continent were slaves, flew out the window.
When I wanted to contribute a paper to a special issue of my university’s journal, my aborted Yasuke project sprung to mind. I turned the rough beginning of the novel into an academic paper and eventually published it online in 2015. It was an instant hit, and I was contacted by people all around the world for more information.
I asked many of the Yasuke fans why they felt drawn to him. The answers were varied and compelling: his rags-to-riches story, his success in another culture, his physical strength, his potential as a positive role model, his ethnicity. Yasuke gave them hope for a better world. All of the respondents connected Yasuke’s story to modern-day issues such as the refugee crisis, social mobility, immigration, social alienation and racism. The African samurai is a man for today, a fact reflected by his portrayal in Japanese books, manga and computer games over the last two decades.
As the swell of interest increased, I made an interesting discovery about Japan—one that, as an immigrant to that country, came as a surprise. The country of Japan is often thought of as racially homogeneous, but in the decades before and after Yasuke’s time, there were at least 300 to 500 Africans living in western Japan and several thousand more if you include temporary visitors. Of other foreigners, there were tens of thousands. Japan was far more diverse historically than people believe, and as Japanese cities move speedily toward multiculturalism, and as mixed-heritage sports stars such as Naomi Osaka and Asuka Cambridge find global success, Yasuke’s story again bears relevance to the present day.
I urge readers to look for more Yasukes, for there are millions of them. History is not only about kings and queens. “Normal” people in history can inspire us today. We can connect with them and emulate them to lead our own meaningful lives. In many ways they were just like us.
But in many ways, of course, they were not like us. Most readers of this book will not face early death from horrible diseases and childbirth, nor will they have the need to bear arms and kill at close quarters. And that aspect of historical change can help us see that our world is not so bad. The barbarians are not at the gateway, and human health is better than it has ever been before. The vast majority of humanity is very lucky, and we owe it to our ancestors to realize that and do positive things with the world they have left us.
Thomas Lockley is an associate professor at Nihon University College of Law in Tokyo, where he teaches courses concerning the international and multicultural history of Japan and East Asia. He authored the first academic paper on the life of Yasuke, which led to the release of a Japanese-language book on the historical figure and now to African Samurai, a narrative history co-written with thriller and speculative fiction author Geoffrey Girard that relays Yasuke’s story in a cinematic, endlessly fascinating fashion.