Kurusan Yasuke is one of the first, if not the first, foreigner to become samurai in Japan. His story begins at the end of the 16th century in Africa (he is said to have been born around 1550).

It is not known exactly where he was born but it seems that he was originally from the Congo or Mozambique.

Some aspects of his story are based on facts, while others may have been added later. An example is the name by which it is known: Kurusan Yasuke.

As the name “Yasuke” was given to him by one of the three great unifiers of Japan, Nobunaga Oda, as the name “Kurusan” is a later addition because the word “san” was not used at the time of its existence.

One of the historical sources of Yasuke’s existence is “The History of Japan” (História do Japão), written by the Jesuit Father Luís Fróis whose first volume was completed in 1586. He is also mentioned in “Ecclesiastical History of the islands and kingdoms of Japan ”by Father François Solier and in the Shinchokoki

Yasuke arrived in Japan around 1579 with an Italian Jesuit, Alessandro Valignano, of which he is the slave. This may seem surprising a priori, but at that time the popes had variable geometry morals. Regarding slavery, Pope Eugene IV condemned the slavery of the black inhabitants of the Canary Islands in 1435.

17 years later, in 1452, Pope Nicholas V authorized the kings of Spain and Portugal to subdue Saracens, pagans and other unbelievers and to “reduce them to perpetual servitude”. This same bull was renewed in 1456 by Calixte III, in 1481 by Sixtus IV and 1514 by Leo X.

Some historians believe that these bubbles allowed the slave trade to begin.

On the other hand, Pope Paul III recognizes the Indians of America as real men and denounces slavery in 1537. We can therefore see that the policy of the Church was quite hesitant in this area and even more in the regions. distant from America, Africa and Asia.

“Out of sight, out of heart” goes the saying. It should also be noted that the Jesuit order was itself divided on the subject.

Battle of Honno-ji

Battle of Honno-ji

Still, Yasuke arrives at Japan in 1579 and he did not really go unnoticed: a force of nature, he was between 1m90 and 1m95 which was well above the height of the Japanese and Europeans of the time and, of course, he was black this which did not fail to amaze in the land of the rising sun.

The story goes that Nobunaga Oda thought Yasuke’s skin color was due to a trick and ordered that he be washed to verify that it was indeed his natural color.

Yasuke made such a sensation to Kyoto that news of this unusual stranger reached Nobunaga Oda’s ears. The latter then ordered that Yasuke was introduced to him because he was very fond of all the novelties that the Europeans brought to Japan.

Oda was impressed that Yasuke could speak Japanese and by his physical characteristics. So he kept Yasuke with him and even made him a samurai at a time when only members of that caste could become so. So it was a huge honor for a foreigner.

The story unfortunately ends badly because after unifying most of Japan, Nobunaga Oda was betrayed by Akechi Mitsuhide, one of its most loyal generals. This last convict Oda to be seppuku at the battle of Honno-ji.

Yasuke joined Nobutada Oda, the son of his daimyo, but he too was defeated. Akechi Mistsuide delivered Yasuke to the Jesuits who must not have seen very favorably the fact that a slave could have risen above his rank. It then disappears, no longer appearing in any writing.

Sources:
Yasuke: the first foreign samurai was African
The Legend of Yasuke
Yasuke: the african samurai
List of papal bulls

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