Yasuke, the samurai of African origin protagonist of the new episode of Assassin's Creed

Credits: Anthony Azekwoh, CC BY–SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The black samurai protagonist of Assassin's Creed was called Yasukewas most likely originally from Mozambique and in the Sengoku period (corresponding to our 16th century) he was raised to the rank of samurai by Oda Nobunaga. His date of birth is not known. He arrived in Japan in 1579when he was around 26 or 27 years old, following an Italian Jesuit missionary, Alessandro Valignani, and aroused much curiosity in the local population. After two years it was handed over to Oda Nobunaga, one of the daimyo (feudal lords) who vied for control of Japan. Nobunaga, according to some studies, elevated Yasuke at the rank of samurai and treated him with every respect. In 1582, when the daimyo was betrayed by one of his vassals, Yasuke was captured and handed over to the Jesuits present in Japan. Since then there has been no further news of him. His story, however, has entered myth and is told in numerous books, comics and video games.

Who was the black samurai

We know little about Yasuke, the “African samurai”, because the sources are scarce and tell only a small part of his life. It is known that he was a man of African originabout 190 centimeters tall, and who arrived in Japan following an Italian missionary, the Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (or Valignani), in 1579. According to one of the most accredited hypotheses, he was originally from Portuguese East Africa, present-day Mozambique, and belonged to the Macua ethnic group.

It is not known how he came into contact with Valignano, responsible for the Jesuits for the “Indies,” a vast territory that included East Africa and much of Asia. Perhaps the missionary had met Yasuke in Mozambique during a trip or perhaps he had met him in India (assuming that the young African had been taken there previously). The fact is that Yasuke, then called Yussuf (Giuseppe), became his servant and in 1579, when Valignano reached Japan to continue his evangelization missions, he followed him.

Yasuke in Sengoku period Japan

Valignani and his servant arrived in Japan in the middle of Sengoku periodor Warring States period, between 1467 and 1603. Control of the country was contested by numerous daimyo, a sort of feudal lords, each of whom controlled a portion of territory. The daimyo were constantly at war with each other and had powerful private armies. For this reason, the Sengoku period was the golden age of the samurai, that is, warriors who fought in the service of the daimyo, and of the ninja, special soldiers specialized in secret operations.

Major Japanese clans around 1570 (Credits Ro4444)
Major Japanese clans around 1570. Credits: Ro4444.

When Valignano arrived in Japan, his servant immediately aroused curiosity. He probably wasn't the first person with black skin to reach Japanese territory, because in the previous decades Europeans had already brought with them some slaves captured in Africa, but he still aroused great interest.

A Black Samurai: Yasuke in Oda Nobunaga's service

In 1581 Valignano decided to visit the capital, Kyoto, where he met Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful daimyo. Nobunaga stayed impressed by his physical appearance and by the strength of the servant, now called Yasuke. Originally, however, he did not believe that he was really black: because he had very dark skin, the daimyo and the men in his entourage suspected that he was dyed with ink. So they forced him to undress and washed him with water to check that he was really black.

Having made sure of his color, Nobunaga wanted to keep Yasuke with him and assigned him an important role. He named him “kosho” (roughly translated as page) and, according to some studies, raised him to the dignity of samurai. Today the hypothesis that he was a samurai, although accepted by many scholars, does not find unanimous consensus and has recently caused some controversy.

Oda Nobunaga

Yasuke's capture and end

In 1582 one of Nobunaga's vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, rebelled against his master, defeated him and drove him to suicide. Yasuke was captured, but was not executed: Akechi declared that a black slave was “like a beast” and not worth putting to death. Therefore the young African was handed over to the Jesuits. From that moment on, nothing more is known about him: the following years and his death are shrouded in mystery.

The myth of the black “samurai”.

The black “samurai” could not fail to arouse interest and curiosity. He was probably depicted in drawings and paintings since the 17th century, but no identification has ever been proven.

Painting from 1605. According to some interpretations, Yasuke is depicted in the center fighting with another man
Japanese painting from 1605. According to some interpretations, one of the two men fighting in the center is Yasuke.

However, it is certain that, in more recent times, Yasuke's story has been told by many books and articles. The black samurai is also the protagonist of some manga, such as Afro Samurai in 1999, an animated series on Netflix and various video games. Yasuke will also be one of the two protagonists of Assassin's Creed Shadowsan episode of the popular video game series, scheduled for release on November 15, 2024.