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Researcher sheds light on mystery of African samurai Yasuke made famous by Netflix anime

A scene from the Netflix anime series "Yasuke," which follows the story of an African samurai. (c) Netflix

TOKYO -- Nearly 450 years ago, a certain samurai warrior won the affection of 16th century Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga, who came close to unifying much of war-torn feudal Japan in the mid- to late 16th century. But this samurai, who went by the name Yasuke, was not from some long line of Japanese warriors; he was originally from Africa, and was brought to Japan by a Jesuit missionary.

    In spring 2021, streaming giant Netflix released an anime series based on Yasuke's extraordinary life, and there have also been moves for a Hollywood film adaptation. The Mainichi Shimbun delved into the mystery surrounding the African samurai.

    The six-episode first season of the Netflix series "Yasuke" was released worldwide on April 29, 2021. It is set during the Sengoku warring states period when rival warlords fought for control of Japan. The first installment finds Yasuke, the strongest-ever known ronin -- masterless samurai -- is leading a quiet life after too many days spent in battle. However, when a local village turns into a warzone, he takes up his katana sword once again.

    In March 2021, ahead of the series' launch, "Yasuke" director LeSean Thomas made the following comment regarding the inspiration behind the anime:

    "I first learned of Yasuke's role in Japanese history over a decade or so. The children's book, Kuro-suke by Kurusu Yoshio (annotation by reporter: 1968, Iwasaki Shoten), featured images that piqued my curiosity. To eventually learn that he wasn't just a fictional character, but a real person, was exciting material for an adventure story."

    Nihon University associate professor Thomas Lockley uses a map to talk about the African samurai Yasuke in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 25, 2022. (Mainichi/Ririko Maeda)

    The claim that Yasuke was originally from Mozambique is a prominent theory. However, Thomas Lockley, 44, an associate professor at Nihon University's college of law in Tokyo who has been researching the African samurai for over 10 years, commented, "His appearance and skin color is not that of someone from Mozambique. I'd say he's from somewhere near (present-day) South Sudan."

    He added, "I believe that when he was a child, he was captured in Africa and sold on the slave market. But I think he was a freedman or a mercenary by the time he came to Japan."

    Yasuke arrived by ship in present-day Kuchinotsu Port on Nagasaki Prefecture's Shimabara Peninsula in 1579, accompanying the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, possibly as his bodyguard. With the Jesuit, Yasuke is said to have visited missionary outposts and met Christian feudal lords across southwest Japan.

    In 1581, Valignano and his party went to Japan's then capital of Kyoto as an embassy. It is believed that the party sought a meeting with Nobunaga, then the most powerful lord in the country after defeating his closest rivals, to ask for his help to promote Christianity.

    At a towering 180 centimeters tall and with his dark skin, Yasuke must have captured people's attention. Crowds formed in Kyoto to see him, and news of this uproar eventually reached Nobunaga. Then, with another Jesuit, Yasuke met the great warlord at Kyoto's Honno-ji Temple.

    In his "Shincho Koki," or "The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga," Nobunaga retainer Ota Gyuichi described Yasuke as having superhuman strength. Nobunaga, who encouraged martial arts, is said to have been especially fond of sumo wrestling. A folding screen said to have been illustrated during the early Edo period (1603-1867) features an illustration of a man, who appears to be black, partaking in sumo. Lockley believes that the black man is Yasuke, while a seated man near him looking on is Nobunaga.

    Afterwards, Yasuke began to serve Nobunaga, and was promoted. However, about a year and three months later, in June 1582, a Nobunaga general named Akechi Mitsuhide rebelled and drove the warlord to end his own life at Honno-ji temple. When Mitsuhide attacked with 13,000 soldiers, it is said that Nobunaga ordered Yasuke to escape and go to Nobutada, Nobunaga's son and successor.

    "Yasuke: In search of the African Samurai" (c) Thomas Lockley (author) Yoshiko Fuji (translator)/Ohta Publishing Co.

    Yasuke fought to protect Nobutada, but once the battle was lost, he obeyed the order to present his sword to a Mitsuhide vassal. Yasuke was not killed by Mitsuhide, and was instead sent to a Christian church and Jesuit missionary outpost. What happened to him after that is unknown.

    Lockley, one of only a few researchers devoted to studying the African samurai, published the book "Yasuke: In search of the African Samurai" (Ohta Publishing Co.) in Japan in 2017. U.S. and U.K. versions of the book have also drawn attention, and Yasuke became more widely known overseas.

    The researcher commented, "I think that the enigmatic life of Yasuke, which so stirs people's imagination, is now getting this much attention because of the internet age and its instant access to mountains of information. As our society grows more and more multicultural, it's likely that Yasuke will be further recognized as a pioneer in this area."

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    Thomas Lockley was born in London in 1978. He obtained a license as a foreign language teacher at the University of Sheffield, and completed a postgraduate degree at the Open University. He came to Japan in 2000 and was appointed associate professor of Nihon University's college of law in 2019. He specializes in language education theory, and teaches Japanese history in English.

    (Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Goto, Digital News Center)

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