E60A Yasuke Arriving in Japan


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Show Notes for episode 60A of our Podcast – Yasuke arriving in Japan

Updates on Last Week Episode

One of our listeners chimed in about us saying perhaps the Knights were Samurai, reminding us that Samurai didn’t come into existence in the 12th century, however, the story of the Bamboo Cutter was written around the 9th/10th century and so predates the Samurai. Similarly it also predates the daimyo and shugo titles held in Japan.  

So as to what term has been changed to Knight, we are still not sure of. There are however some terms I came across which existed during this time such as Kokushi which could be the term here that was translated into Knight. We will have to ask the Professor for his thoughts here.  

Yasuke

Story Notes

So today we are going to talk about Yasuke, the first African to have gained the title of Samurai in Japan.  

Around this time he is likely to have been a relatively young man, in his young twenties, one source I used saying no more than 23. Being at least six foot two from the records we have he towered over everyone, and at this point of his life, half of it had been spent as a soldier.  It’s said he brandished an short curved Arab dagger, as well as a tall spear gathered from India. So he was definitely going to be a sight to behold in Japan.   

Now he arrived Japan July, 1579 travelling on a top of the line Portuguese ship known as a Nao. At this point in time, Yasuke was sailing on one of the largest vessels in the world. Some 500 tons, they were built for moving product, not for their speed. And thy lacked grace in appearance,  

Yasuke at this time was the protector of the Jesuit missionary known as Alessandro Valignano. 

Alessandro Valignano
Alessandro Valignano

In essence, if you were to boil it down to one thing. They were here to bring Christianity, though Japan saw it as a very foreign thing. Too strange almost to adopt, there were those who adopted Christianity over time in Japan.  

But for the most part, Japan wanted guns, and if bringing guns to trade allowed the Jesuit missionaries to stay and perhaps convert a few of the Japanese, they didn’t mind doing it at all. I do want to talk about Christianity and how it affected Japan during this time, but we are here for Yasuke today. Of course, there were still exceptions to the rules, where the Lords may have taken in Christianity to get access to guns. The local populace did, at times seem happy to adopt the religion.   

Yasuke has been travelling now for over 2 years before reaching Japan. Starting in Goa when he began to work for the Jesuits, from there he travelled to Melaka, then Macao and finally to Japan. So he was very accustomed to life on a ship by now. However he had it better than those employed by the captains of the ships he had previously travelled in. Having access to better food and drink from supplies brought by the missionaries. For most crew members on these ships at the time, we are talking food such as hard tack biscuits, given out monthly IF they hadn’t already spoiled. And if that wasn’t bad enough, rat meat was often main courses for sailors at the time as food waned and the rats multiplied on board. Not the best of jobs.  

The language of the mariner at the time was Portuguese and so it is highly likely that Yasuke would have learnt some in his time at sea.  

And so they near the coast of Japan, planning on docking at Nagasaki until a vessel approached them with another Jesuit on board. This man, Brother Ambrosius Fernandes, instructed them to dock in the next domain, at the port of Kuchinotsu, instead of Nagasaki. The local Lord of Nagasaki at the time, Omura Sumitada, had not been accommodating enough in the Jesuit’s opinion and so they should go elsewhere. The was another Lord who so desperately wanted their guns, and he would no doubt give in to any of their requests and demands to get them. And so, one more day at sea was needed before Yasuke could walk on land once more.  

In fact the plan for Yasuke and Allesandro was to reside here for several years, giving Yasuke and Allesandro a much needed break from the ocean.  

Arima Harunobu
Arima Harunobu

So they finally docked and Yasuke could set foot on dry land, the area being under the control of Arima Harunobu. A man who had enemies on all sides. Especially those to the north of him, who had chosen to go to war with those who had gained favour in the eyes of the Europeans as well as gaining hold of their guns and agreeing to abandon centuries of Buddhism and Shintoism to convert their beliefs over to Christianity.  

The Lord was their to welcome Allesandro and Yasuke to his small town. Likely at the time having little more than 60 houses here. A much less grand place to the nearby Nagasaki. 

Now, before hired by Allesandro, his old bosses had preferred their security to be hidden in the shadows so their enemy would not know they had protection. But Allesandro was very different, having Yasuke wield his dagger and spear for all to see and there is the high liklyhood as well his skin color would have also been a deciding factor in hiring him, as another means that people would always be aware of his presence. Even though he had hired Yasuke as a shock and awe type of element to his retinue, Allesandro was not the best of people  

For instance, this Jesuit was a prolific writer, but as he did not agree with the ‘lower classes’ at no point in his entire writing does he mention Yasuke. And he was a fan of turning a blind eye to things such as slaves trading and gunrunning if it meant he could save more souls on behalf of the Pope. The first Jesuits had come over 30 years before Alessandro to begin their work at converting Japan to Christianity and by this point when Yasuke arrive Kuchinotsu had been a Christian domain for years.  

Yasuke new he would have to be more alert in Japan to ensure Allesandro stayed safe. The previous year the Jesuit’s had unfortunately backed a loosing side in the Battle of Mimigawa, barely escaping with their lives. And so the Jesuits were still very much seen as the enemy by many Lord in neighbouring domains. And if they managed to get a hold of and kill Allesandro they no doubt would have. So Yasuke was definitely going to have his work cut out for himself.  

Now, the Lord here came to greet them as I said. But I just want to say, he had to sneak to the port to meet them. At this point in time, his own castle is under siege, but such was his desire to meet Allesandro when he arrived to put him in his good graces, he snuck out at night time. And would later have to sneak back into his own castle. Also, it should be said, he is only twelve! And additionally, to add to the bizarre nature of him wanting Christianity he had at first been heavily anti-Catholic, led a rebellion against his catholic father and forced 15,000 of his father subjects to give up Christianity. So  it is very likely he welcomed the religion back with open arms because of the trade and guns the Jesuits could offer him in the fight against his enemies.  

Now many locals, they are seeing Yasuke for the first time. A man of color, and so many made erroneous assumptions of where he had come from. The land of Tenjiku. This word made up from the Kanji for Heaven and Bamboo, was a term used for India back during this time. Yasuke and the others were led to the mission building where Lord Arima made his farewell, leaving with them a small group for body guards and servants, though I doubt Yasuke though the extra guards were needed. However, that was all the Lord could offer to them for now as he had to return to the siege he was currently under.  

Now Yasuke, is having to learn a new culture, a new language, and even come to terms with new architecture. The mission building would have been housed in a temple, the old relic of Buddha replaced with Christian ones. But Yasuke had come from a place where buildings were sturdy. Made of stone or brick, here the buildings were of wood, and paper thin wall literally made of paper and so the idea of defending the man who served was going to be on an going stress.  

And to add to it, Allesandro decided soon after arriving and resting in the mission that they were to go to see Lord Arima in his own castle. Though it was under siege. If the Lord could sneak in and out, then there was no reason they couldn’t too. And so Yasuke would have to follow and protect Allesandro as best he could.  

And so sadly Yasuke find himself on a boat once more, heading to Hinoe Castle and after disembarking closer to the castle they were now in territory filled with heavily anti-catholic people. Yasuke was definately going to have to keen himself alert for any danger to come. But some of the Lords men were waiting for them, and so, though the route was difficult, through a mountain, fording a river, and then another mountain, but they made it safely to the castle.  

Yasuke remained on guard during a meeting between Allesandro and Lord Arima, in which the Lord agreed to be baptised as it was the only was Allesandro was going to order for him some cannons from Goa to aide in his fight against his enemies. But the baptism could only go ahead Yasuke overheard, if he agreed to break it off with his mistress and marry in a Christian Ceremony, a Jesuit preferred wife.  

Now I want to leave it there for now, at least for his time in Japan.  

I want to look into where we believe Yasuke came from, when he was taken in his youth.  

There are a few varying theories. So I want to go through them.  

We have a French account from Francois Solier dating to 1627 in a book called the Histoire ecclésiastique des isles et royaumes du Japon stating Yasuke came from Mozambique. However this account was written long after the fact and is likely an assumption as we have not other documents or accounts backing up this statement.  

There are other accounts that states the first Africans to arrive in Japan were also from Mozambique, but none do talk of Yasuke. In 2013 there was an investigating stating he was a Makua with the name of Yasufe, a name derived from a Mozambican name of Issufo, but this investigation did not necessarily meet journalistic standards and may not hold much weight to it. The Makua people, additionally, did not have much contact with the Portuguese in Mozambique until 1585, some six years after Yasuke arrived in Japan. 

Yao Chief
Yao Chief

He could also have been a part of the Yao People, again around the area of Mozambique and neighbouring countries who were around this time coming into contact with the Portuguese. Interestingly, in Japan a common suffix to male names is suke, and if you combine it with Yao, you end up with Yao-suke. 

Now, other believe he could originate from Ethopia, from the Habesha people. A man by the name of Thomas Lockley suggested that this theory is most convincing as members of this group who were not Jewiish, Christian, or non-Muslim were called Cafre by the Portuguese; and they were well‐built and skilled soldiers much like what Yasuke was. From this theory his original name might be the Ethiopian Yisake or the Portuguese Isaque, derived from Isaac. Yasufe was also used as a surname in Ethiopia adding to the theory of him coming from this country. 

And finally, it is stated by some that he was of the Dinka from South Sudan.  When talked of, Yasuke was always connected to his extreme height and extremely dark skin color. The Dinka people are among the tallest in Africa, and have darker skin than the Ethiopians, Eritreans, or Somalis. However, adult Dinka men had a ritual custom of drawing decorative patterns on their faces by tattooing, but no account of Yasuke having a face pattern was recorded. 

Now I could not find an answer to when they became men, so thought Yasuke was never mentioned as having marking on his face, perhaps he was taken before this coming of age rite had been enacted on him.  

Tongue Twister

武具馬具武具馬具、三武具馬具。合わせて武具馬具、六武具馬具。 

ぶぐばぐぶぐばぐ みぶぐばぐ あわせて ぶぐばぐ むぶぐばぐ 

bugubagu bugubagu mibugubagu awasete bugubagu mubugubagu 

ぶぐ=武具=Armor 

ばぐ=馬具=Saddle 

“So to speak, armor, saddle, armor, saddle, three set of armor and saddle. Total number of the set of armor and saddle is six set of armor and saddle.” Quote The Professor.  

ぶぐばぐ(+1) ぶぐばぐ(+1) みぶぐばぐ(+3) あわせて ぶぐばぐ(+1) むぶぐばぐ(=6) 

Header Image: Feudal Map of Japan between 1564-73.

References

  • Tongue Twister comes straight from the knowledge of The Professor and Heather.
  • Cooper, Michael (1965). They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543 —1640. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • Lockley, T & Girard, G. (2019) African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legenedary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan. Tokyo: Tuttle-Mori Angency Inc.
  • Histoire ecclésiastique des isles et royaumes du Japon [Ecclesiastical History of the Isles and Kingdoms of Japan] (in French).

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Heavenly Spear