Samurai are among the most enduring symbols of Japanese cultural heritage, thus unsurprisingly, most samurai were Japanese. There are, however, examples of non-Japanese who became samurai as well. The most famous western example is the English sailor William Adams (1564-1620) who came to Japan in 1600 and was able to rise through the ranks to eventually become a samurai. But one of the most surprising examples would probably be an African by the name of Yasuke who was made a samurai by the Japanese Daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) after taking on the role of his body guard. Yasuke was brought to Japan in 1579 by Jesuit missionaries and gained the attention and interest of the Japanese nobleman.
Yasuke’s Rise as a Samurai
Yasuke’s origins are shrouded in mystery. He was probably born between 1555 and 1566, but even that is not certain. Historians are not even sure of the origin of his name, though it is most likely the Japanese form of his original name. According to one source, he may have been a Makua from Mozambique. It has also been suggested that he was from Angola or Ethiopia. Additionally, he may have been a European-born slave from Portugal.
Whatever his origin, Yasuke first appears in history in 1579 as an attendant of the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano coming to Japan to visit the missions that had been set up there. Yasuke was most likely a slave. Yasuke’s black skin generated a lot of interest from the native Japanese and many are said to have come to see him at the church which the Jesuits had constructed in Kyoto. This commotion caught the interest of the Daimyo, Lord Nobunaga, who asked for an audience with him.
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