Yasuke: The Real Black Samurai

Yasuke (Photo Credit to Koei a game developer of Chinese and Japanese war history)

The Real Black Samurai

Back in 1977, there was a Blaxploitation film titled Black Samurai, starring Jim Kelly. It wasn’t really about nothin that gotta do with this story though. But it happened. Okay, wanna talk real samurai history? Well, in the late 16th century Japan’s most powerful warlord was Oda Nobunaga. Just picture a Japanese warlord in the old days. Yeah that was him. Nobunaga had spent the past 20 years conquering 2/3rds of Japan, and was feared throughout the country. He had any choice of Samurai to hire as his personal bodyguard. So it’s an interesting story how Yasuke, an African Samurai, came to earn this position.

Yasuke (we don’t know his African name) came to Japan as a slave of an Italian Jesuit missionary. Yasuke was over six feet tall and towered over the Japanese, who described him as “looking between the age of 24 or 25, black like an ox, healthy and good looking, and possessing the strength of 10 men.” When Nobunaga met him, he immediately was impressed. Yasuke could already speak Japanese. And he could fight. Within less than a year, Yasuke went from being Nobunaga’s page to joining the esteemed ranks of Japan’s warrior class, the Samurai. And he was no ordinary Samurai. He was the personal bodyguard of Oda Nobunaga.

Of course, being at the top has its risks. Within months of Yasuke’s becoming a samurai, Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his closest generals, Akechi. Akechi caught Nobunaga in a temple and took siege. The story was so crazy it was reported in the “Obscure History” section of The Daily Beagle.

Essentially, Akechi set the whole temple on fire. Nobunaga knew it was a wrap and gutted himself with his own sword. Yasuke, the African samurai, cut through every motherfuckin samurai in his way. At over six feet, he musta trucked half of em out the way like an offensive linebacker. The rest probably lost their heads like in one of cool scenes in the old samurai movies. Yasuke managed to fight his way out of the entire temple, snuck past every guard and lookout, and slid to the nearby Azuchi castle with Nobunaga’s eldest son under his wing. Next, Akechi attacked the castle. Yasuke ran headfirst into the fight again. Against dozens of armed men. All he got is his sword and them fresh ass samurai clothes. He was the real thing.

Yasuke and his fellow fighters were soon outnumbered and had to surrender. Yasuke survived a battle that had claimed countless lives, but, “rather than commit suicide (the samurai tradition when facing defeat) he handed his sword to Akechi’s men (the Western tradition).” The news reported, “Unsure of how to proceed, the soldiers deferred to their lord. Akechi proved somewhat more bigoted than Nobunaga when he replied that Yasuke was merely a beast and not true samurai and, therefore, could not be expected to know the honour of seppuku (ritual suicide). Akechi handed Yasuke back to the Jesuits in Kyoto who were reportedly relieved to see him still in one piece.”

Yasuke kept up the traditions of honor, loyalty, and bravery in the face of danger. Real motherfuckin Samurai warlords at war kinda danger! But when it came to ritual suicide, that wasn’t his way. “Oh hell nah” he musta thought, when faced with the “gutting himself” ritual suicide thing. And this is why Yasuke lived. Plus, in this case, racism worked in his favor. I’m pretty sure he went back and cut off Akechi’s testicles for the “beast” comment a few years later. Reportedly, when someone asked what he took, he said “Got eeem.” Okay that didn’t happen, but just imagine Welven da Great saying “Deez Nuts” in traditional Samurai-era Japan. That would be so great.

Anyway, there’s another lesson that can be found in the story that follows. Not only did Yasuke live, but his story became so well-known that a children’s book was made about him in Japan, titled Kuro-Suke. In the end of the book, we learn that Yasuke lives to fight another day, but when he sleeps that night, he dreams of his parents in Africa…and cries silently.

This detail lends a very human dimension to a warrior’s tale. Yes, he was a valiant warrior. But he was also a young man, kidnapped from his home. He had an honorable rank in a world full of strangers who did not understand him, which must have felt more like a curse at times than a blessing. He probably didn’t run into many who could relate to his experience. And he must have had to fight regularly, just to maintain his standing. And he may have constantly been searching for a way to get home, with few who could answer him.

This is what it’s like for some of us who become “conscious.” We immediately find ourselves at war, in a war we barely knew about before we woke up to this new awareness. As soon as we start, we found ourselves engaged in two sets of struggles. One war, external, the other internal. Prophet Muhammad taught that the greatest jihad was within, and Islamic proverbs tell us that man perpetually returns from fighting his physical wars to the war he wages within. This, ultimately, is where the greatest victory is to be found as well. Not in the one man who slays a thousand warriors, but in the man who slays his own ego and humbles his heart in service to the greater good. This is where we can see a congruence in all the world’s ancient warrior traditions and their teachings, all exalt the warrior who conquers the root of any weakness or wickedness within him, making himself move in only in accord with the greater good, rather than his own ego’s desires. Sure, they exalted the ones who killed a million motherfuckers with an axe made of elk horns too…but they really liked the deep “former axe slayer and now he’s a monk” types too.

But that’s the thing. To be great, that’s what it takes. Struggle on the inside, struggle on the outside. Struggle on the outside might be tough, but its never any comparison for your struggle with the beast within. You can conceptualize it however you want, but our ancestors would have called those kinds of vices and mental hangups “evil spirits” “demons” and the like. Why? Because they’re the kinds of challenges worth of someone as great and divine as who?Your motherfuckin self. Right. We aren’t at war with flesh and blood, nor with vaporous ethers and ancestral energies, but with PRINCIPALITIES. Fight that fight and you never die, because you didn’t die in vain. We struggle because we’re meant to. Because struggle makes us great. Only greatness befits us. And to greatness we return.


If you found this article interesting and would like to know more about this and related topics, check out the book When the World was Black Part Two