The African origins of the name of a black samurai

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[The first part of this post, giving the historical background of the central figure, is by S. Robert Ramsey.]

Two joined panels of a Japanese folding screen painted in 1605

In this image, the daimyō Oda Nobunaga is overseeing a sumō match between a dark-skinned man and another wrestler. And if the nobleman is indeed Oda as claimed, the dark-skinned man can only be Yasuke, the legendary black samurai.

There have been so many fictionalized novels, anime, and manga about Yasuke, it’s easy to assume that he was a fictional creation. Yet, Yasuke was unquestionably real. There actually was a black, African samurai in traditional Japan.

The black man known in Japanese annals as “Yasuke” arrived in Japan in 1579 as the slave of a high-ranking Jesuit missionary. In March 1581, this missionary came to the capital area on an inspection tour, and the presence of Yasuke in his retinue caused an immediate uproar. The local people had never seen a black man of any kind; moreover, both Western and Japanese records describe this slave as enormous, with an especially dark, even jet-black, skin color. “He was 6 foot 2 with charcoal-black skin,” one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s retainers later wrote. No wonder many Japanese thought he was an animal or a monster of some kind!

It was on this same occasion, in Kyoto, that Yasuke was presented to Oda, Japan’s most powerful warlord. Oda was shocked. He, too, had never seen an African, and he immediately assumed that Yasuke’s skin had been painted with ink. He ordered the skin to be scrubbed. But when he saw that Yasuke’s skin was indeed black, the ever-curious Oda took increased interest in the man, not only for his blackness but also for his size and great strength. Oda subsequently took Yasuke into his service as a kashin, or retainer, giving him a residence and a short katana sword, then assigned him duty as a weapon bearer. Thus, Yasuke became one of Oda’s samurai warriors who followed him into battle during the bloody Warring States period (1467-1615). But Oda also enjoyed conversing with Yasuke, who apparently had learned to speak Japanese.

When Oda was defeated and made to commit seppuku, Yasuke joined and fought alongside Oda’s heir, who was also defeated. Yasuke was then taken prisoner but allowed to live, allegedly because the enemy general judged the black man to be an animal that should not be killed.

At this point, Yasuke disappears from the written records. Did the former slave return to the Christians? Or did he live out his life quietly in Japan? The ultimate fate of Japan’s black samurai remains shrouded in mystery.

Yasuke's name and ethnicity

According to Histoire ecclésiastique des isles et royaumes du Japon, written by Jesuit priest François Solier of the Society of Jesus in 1627, Yasuke was likely from Mozambique. No further account corroborates this alleged assumption. This would be consistent with other accounts of Africans from Mozambique in Japan. According to Fujita Midori, the first African people who came to Japan were Mozambican. They reached Japan in 1546 as shipmates or slaves who served Portuguese captain Jorge Álvares (not to be confused with another explorer of the same name who died in 1521).

In 2013, a Japanese TBS television program titled Sekai Fushigi Hakken! (世界ふしぎ発見!, "Discovery of the World's Mysteries!") suggested that Yasuke was a Makua named Yasufe. This name seems to be derived from the more popular Mozambican name Issufo. However, the program provided little evidence for its conclusions. The Makua are not documented as having had any significant contact with the Portuguese based in Mozambique until 1585.

Yasuke may have been a member of the Yao people, or from the more inland area of Mozambique. Yao people were just coming into contact with the Portuguese at the time, which might account for his name: that is, Yao added to the common Japanese male name suffix of suke produces Yao-suke.

Sudanese claims

Another claim suggests that Yasuke was a Dinka from South Sudan. He was famous for his height and extremely dark skin color. The Dinka people are among the tallest in Africa, and have significantly darker skin compared to Ethiopians, Eritreans, or Somalis for example. 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.

Ethiopian claims

According to another theory, Yasuke was from Ethiopia. Thomas Lockley suggested that this theory is most convincing. Like Yasuke, Ethiopians who were not Jewish (i.e. Beta Israel), Christian (e.g. Amhara), or Muslim were called cafre by the Portuguese; they were well‐built and skilled soldiers, unlike other east Africans who suffered from famine. According to this theory, his original name might be the Amharic name Yisake or the Portuguese name Isaque, derived from Isaac. Yasufe was also used as a surname in Ethiopia.


If Yasuke were of smaller stature, we might suspect that he was a Kunlun Slave, which we have previously discussed in some detail on Language Log.

Selected readings


  1. Chas Belov said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 3:20 pm

    I am discomfited by the inclusion of the sentence "No wonder many Japanese thought he was an animal or a monster of some kind!" in this post.

    It is one thing to report a record of historic racism; it is quite another to support it.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    September 10, 2021 @ 7:54 am

    Given that the sentence which you quote is preceded by "The local people had never seen a black man of any kind", I feel that the context more than justifies the conclusion.

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