Yasuke (c. 1556-?) was a black (African) retainer who for a short time was in the service of the Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga. The name "Yasuke" (彌介) was given to him after he took service with Nobunaga; his original name is not recorded.
According to "Histoire Ecclesiastique Des Isles Et Royaumes Du Japon", written by Pere François Solier of the Society of Jesus in 1627, Yasuke came from Mozambique. Some other accounts claim that he came from the Congo. Yasuke is mentioned in some of the 1581 letters of the Jesuits Luis Frois and Lorenço Mexia and in the 1582 Annual Report of the Jesuit Mission in Japan. These were published in Cartas in 1598. They are translated in full in Vols. 3-5 and 3-6 of Juuroku... and there is no reference to him in Frois's History.
Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579 as the servant of the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who had been appointed the Visitor (inspector) of the Jesuit missions in the Indies, meaning South and East Asia, an extremely high position. He accompanied Valignano when the latter came to the capital area in March 1581 and caused something of a sensation. In one event, several people were crushed to death while clamouring to get a look at him. Nobunaga heard about him and expressed a desire to see him. Suspecting the black color of his skin to be paint, Nobunaga had him strip from the waist up and made him scrub his skin.
Nobunaga's nephew gave him money. In May, Yasuke accompanied a group of Jesuits on a short trip to the province of Echizen. Yasuke could speak some Japanese, so Nobunaga enjoyed talking with him and was also impressed by his strength. At Nobunaga's request, Valignano left Yasuke with Nobunaga before Valignano left central Japan later that year. Nobunaga treated Yasuke with such great favor that people in Azuchi even said he would probably be made a 'tono' (lord). This did not happen, but he was given the position of samurai (shikan).
In June 1582, Nobunaga was attacked and killed in Honnō-ji in Kyoto by the army of Akechi Mitsuhide. Yasuke was also there at the time. Immediately after Nobunaga's death, Yasuke went to the lodging of Nobunaga's heir Oda Nobutada and tried to withdraw with him to Nijō Castle. When they were ambushed halfway, Yasuke fought alongside the Nobutada forces for a long time. Finally he surrendered his sword to Akechi's men. They asked Akechi himself what to do with him. Akechi said that the black man was a beast and did not know anything, and furthermore, he was not Japanese, so they should not kill him but take him to the church [in Kyoto] of the Visitor from India, so they did, much to the relief of the Jesuits there who had worried about him. There is no information about him after that.
The "Lord Nobunaga Chronicle" (信長公記 Shinchōkōki) has a description of Yasuke's first meeting with Nobunaga. "On the 23rd of the 2nd month [March 23, 1581], a black page (黒坊主 "kuro-bōzu") came from the Christian countries. He looked about 26 [24 or 25 by Western count] or 27 years old; his entire body was black like that of an ox. The man was healthy and good-looking. Moreover, Nobunaga praised strength of Yasuke.
After Matsudaira Ietada had met Yasuke in May 1582, Ietada journalized his looks. " His name was Yasuke. His height was 6 shaku 2 sun (6 ft. 2 in., or 188 cm.). He was black, and his skin was like charcoal." If so, his tall stature would have been very imposing to the Japanese of the day.
Yasuke was also mentioned in the prototype of Shinchōkōki owned by Sonkeikaku Bunko (尊経閣文庫). According to this, Yasuke was given his own house and a short katana by Nobunaga. Nobunaga also assigned him the duty of carrying his personal spear.
Yasuke was featured in the children's historical fiction novel, Kuro-suke (くろ助 Kuro Suke) by Yoshio Kurusu (1916-2001) with illustrations by Genjirou Minoda, published in 1943. It features a highly fictionalized and sympathetic account of Yasuke's life in Japan under Nobunaga. It received the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969.
- Histoire Ecclesiastique Des Isles Et Royaumes Du Japon, vol.1, p.444.. Retrieved 2013-06-22.
- 1581 letters of the Jesuits Luis Frois and Lorenço Mexia
- 「織田信長という歴史 『信長記』の彼方へ」、 Bensei Shuppan:Tokyo, 2009, pp.311-312.
- International Institute for Children's Literature, Osaka, One Hundred Japanese Books for Children 1946-1979: Kuro-suke, retrieved on: June 30, 2007
- Matsuda, Kiichi, ed., Jūroku-jūnanaseiki Iezusukai Nihon Hōkokushuu, Hōdōsha, 1987-98.
- Ōta, Gyūichi, Shinchōkōki, 1622.