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The Reverend Alessandro Valignano was a commanding presence in most any room he ever walked into – while I’m not one to buy into ‘great man’ theories of history, this guy was impressive. He obtained a doctorate in law aged 19, and after some unspecified trouble with the law for which he was jailed for a year, he pivoted to theology. By his mid 30s the Napolitano priest was sent out to supervise the conversion of non- Christian souls from Goa in India, to Japan. One reason he was allegedly so much larger than life, was he was literally larger than life. Valignano towered above anyone around him. Well, most people of his time anyway. So imagine this scene in 1581. Alessandro Valignano is in Kyoto, Japan – making his way through a busy street to their lodgings. The locals, not terribly used to seeing foreigners of any kind, crane their necks up in awe of the missionary. ….
While their eye might first be drawn to the Jesuit missionary, it’s the presence of his valet – well technically his bodyguard – who transfixes them. Bigger again. Powerfully built. His skin ‘as dark as charcoal’. The young man caught the imagination of onlookers, and scuttlebutt quickly spread throughout Kyoto of this living wonder. Soon locals clamoured to their lodgings to catch a glimpse of the man. Some even attempted to break down the front door.
The impressively built, dark skinned man was a former African slave, who was believed to have been transported to India. Over there he secured his freedom, and found work as hired muscle for the Jesuits. Ethnically he was possibly from the Makua people of Mozambique, or the Habshi of Ethiopia. He may have belonged to the Dinka tribe of South Sudan – though if so he was enslaved young – He bore none of the facial tattoos the Dinka get at puberty. He was possibly named Yasufe, or Yisake – an Ethiopian variant of Isaac. We know him today as Yasuke. Word of the clamour soon reached the warlord – or Daimyo to use his proper title – Oda Nobunaga. Fascinated, he sent for the young man. Oda found him no less interesting in person. He enjoyed the man’s company. He was also quite the find – skilled with weapons and remarkably strong; people in Oda’s court commented he had the strength of ten men. The two men quickly became friends. By May 1581, Oda had taken Yasuke onboard his crew as a bodyguard. By 1582, Yasuke had become a Samurai.
While this may sound like a rags to riches story – and to a degree it was – Yasuke’s new role came with high levels of risk to match the pay rise and room at court.
From 1336 to 1573 Japan was ruled by the Ashikaga Shogunate. Their rule very much like a military dictatorship, the Shogun enforced absolute authority – with a Junta of 260 Generals, his Daimyo – providing the muscle. In the late 1460s a succession dispute broke out between two factions of the Ashikaga clan, which escalated into a civil war which ran for well over a century. Long suppressed grievances over land rights
eventually led to a massive realignment of society after 1600.
(Sidebar: much of the land in Japan had been handed out to the Shogun’s favourites back in the 800s – many of whom were Kyoto based Daimyo; who happily took rents, but were uncaring absentee landlords in return.)
Yasuke arrived in the midst of the Sengoku Period or ‘age of warring states’. The old Shogunate was gone. Decreasing numbers of Daimyo were at war with one another. At the same time, a new class – often headed by the former estate managers of deposed Daimyo – were on their way to becoming the new Daimyo. The country was in the midst of an all on all battle royale.
Oda himself may have been considered similarly new to the game. Coming from a relatively small land-owning family, he’d built an army of 30,000 men, and expanded his own holdings considerably. While still in his 30s he’d deposed the Shogun and several other Daimyo. He had also put down several Buddhist monasteries, who wielded great power themselves through religious influence and powerful armies of their own. Oda was the odds on favourite for the next Shogun. In an age where many sides were adopting muskets, then later field artillery in place of the traditional samurai sword, people started building western-influenced forts. Oda Nobunaga’s home at Adzuchi Castle was the biggest fort in the country at the time. In a time when tactics were modernising, he also just got it.
We don’t know much specific about Yasuke’s time with the Daimyo. He took part in the battle of Tenmokuzan in 1582. Oda’s forces, in tandem Tokugawa Ieyasu’s army, faced off against Takeda Katsuyori’s army. When it was clear from the outset Takeda was outclassed, so he set fire to his own castle and fled into the mountains. Takeda had a mountain fortress he hoped to hide out in but an upstart officer refused to open the doors for him. With Oda and Tokugawa’s forces closing in, Takeda committed ritual seppuku – running himself through with his own sword. His army were slaughtered to the last man. Our African samurai played some unspecified role in this decisive battle.
He was also present 21st June 1582 at the Honno-Ji incident. Once Takeda was removed, Oda planned a grand campaign to centralise all power under himself. The only clans holding out against him were the already weakened Mori, the Uesugi and Hojo clans. Barring acts of God or treachery, Oda would be the next Shogun. While Oda and Tokugawa took in their new gains following Tenmokuzan, he received a message from a general named Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Toyotomi had been sent out to finish the Mori, but the Mori were proving difficult. Toyotomi had besieged them at Takamatsu Castle by diverting a river, then surrounding the castle with floating siege engines from which they rained down arrows day and night – but the Mori hung in there. A reinforcement army six times the size of Toyotomi’s force was also on the move, with orders to crush them when they got there. Oda left for Honno-Ji temple, to plan his campaign. In the meantime he sent another general, Akechi Mitsuhide, to rescue Toyotomi.
Instead, Akechi sought the advice of several poets, asking them if he should double cross his master? Though his reasons for the double cross remain a mystery, the most likely reason was that he blamed the death of his mother on Oda. (She was a hostage of another Daimyo when Oda ordered an invasion. She was subsequently executed). Whatever the case he surprised Oda and his 30 bodyguards at Honno-Ji Temple, forcing him to commit seppuku. Akechi outnumbered him 13,000 to 30 so this was only ever going to end one way. Yasuke escaped, decapitating his old boss on the way out. Had Akechi gotten hold of Oda’s head, he could have used it to claim authority throughout Oda’s realm.
Yasuke joined up with Oda’s eldest son Oda Nobutada at Nijo castle. They were soon besieged, and Akechi got the better of the younger Oda too. Nobutada also fell on his sword. While most of his fellow defenders were executed, Yasuke was spared. It’s believed Akechi saw him as little more than a trained animal. He was stripped of his weapons and armour, and sent back to the Jesuits.
As the war dragged on, Toyotomi Hideyoshi made it through the siege of Takamatsu Castle. He sought revenge on Akechi Mitsuhide, easily defeating him. Akechi Mitsuhide fled, and met his end, not at the end of his own sword. Having blundered into a group of bandits – the highwaymen robbed and murdered him. Toyotomi Hideyoshi went on to become ‘the great unifier’, but Tokugawa Ieyasu became last man standing. On the murder of Oda, Tokugawa escaped with help from the legendary Hattori Hanzō and his Ninja warriors, Tokugawa returned home to Edo – modern day Tokyo. He allied himself with the great unifier, and fought alongside him. He became Shogun on Toyotomi’s death in 1598, and in 1600 established the Tokugawa Shogunate – ushering in the peaceful, largely isolationist Edo period, which lasted till 1868.
But what of Yasuke? In short we know nothing of his life beyond this. There is speculation he may have been injured in the siege of Nijō castle, and died on being returned to the Jesuits, but this is mere speculation. I could just as reliably (though logically far less likely) claim he climbed aboard an ox, as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu was said to have hundreds of years earlier – then simply rode off into the sunset, looking for his next big adventure. The truth is he just disappeared from the annals of history. If he lived on a while, settled down and got married, or went on to protect a new missionary we have absolutely no clue. By this western music playing under (the podcast episode), you know I’d prefer that he rode off into the sunset.