The Significance of Yasuke, the Black Samurai

tags: popular culture, television, Japanese history, Anime

Warren A. Stanislaus is a PhD Candidate in modern Japanese history at the University of Oxford.

In April 2021 Netflix released the much-anticipated anime series Yasuke, inspired by the true story of a sixteenth century African Samurai. Created by LeSean Thomas and starring actor LaKeith Stanfield as the voice of Yasuke, the series has drawn attention to a curious rising popular fascination with the image of a Black samurai. Even before this latest Netflix project, Japanese cartoonist Takashi Okazaki had already developed a Yasuke-inspired character for his Afro Samurai manga and anime series. It was also reported that two Hollywood studios were lining up films based on Yasuke’s life, one of which was previously set to star the late Chadwick Boseman. 

English and French language publications such as African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard, and Serge Bilé’s Yasuke: Le Samouraï Noir, have been influential in unearthing this history. While many parts of Yasuke’s life are still shrouded in mystery, after arriving to Japan in 1579 at the service of Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, he eventually crossed paths with none other than the powerful feudal lord and the first of the three “Great Unifiers” of Japan – Oda Nobunaga. Yasuke was shown favour and selected to join Nobunaga’s warrior clan. Bestowed with the rank of samurai, Yasuke fought alongside Nobunaga and was even present as a trusted retainer at the infamous HonnĊ-ji incident of 1582 when Nobunaga was forced to commit ritual suicide. 

Spanning the full spectrum of fact and fiction, there is now an abundance of books, articles, YouTube videos, music productions and fashion designs that invoke the seemingly unlikely legend of an African samurai. Why is the story of a little-known sixteenth century Black samurai so important to audiences today?  

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the “Kore de Wakatta! Sekai no Ima” news show on Japan’s public broadcaster (NHK) came under fire for its animated explanation of the Black Lives Matter protests, which used offensive caricatures depicting angry, muscular and unruly Black protestors. The controversy surrounding the Japanese show highlighted a broader and ongoing global problem of media mis-representation, which frequently perpetuates dangerous stereotypes that ties blackness to primitiveness and violent crime-ridden ghettos. 

Entrusted with the fearsome katana sword, the armed Black samurai is a potent image that disrupts these stereotypes. As a samurai, Yasuke’s blackness becomes imbued with the qualities that are associated with the warrior class such as honour, self-control, mastery, respect and loyalty. Or rather, the conferring of the samurai status affirms that Africans always embodied these virtues. Certainly, imaginations of the Zen-like Japanese samurai are often filtered through the lens of Orientalist exoticism, which is similarly harmful as the contrasting image of an African “ignoble savage”. Yet, the existence of the liminal figure of Yasuke, who is both Black and samurai, unsettles the rudiments of such racial taxonomies and hierarchies. 

While media coverage of Afro-Japanese encounters overwhelmingly focuses on incidents of racism or misunderstandings, which reinforces the idea of an unbridgeable divide between Blacks and Japanese, Yasuke’s interaction with Japan has helped illuminate a rich but overlooked history of Afro-Japanese connectivity that is more often characterized by an imagined solidarity. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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