The Wild True Story Of The First Foreign-Born Samurai

Becoming a samurai, part of Japan's elite fighting force from 1185 to the 1868, took rigor and discipline. Training started as a young child, according to PBS, where students learned physical skills, along with Chinese studies, poetry and spirituality. Girls and boys could become samurai, although the women protected their village and remained off the battlefield. All lived by the bushido, or "the way of the warrior," a code that embraced loyalty, ethics and respect, according to the Japan Guide.

Not all samurai came from Japan, though. Yasuke, an African, journeyed to the area in 1579 with an Italian missionary, Alessandro Valignano, and became the first foreigner to rise to the rank of samurai, says the BBC. His origins remain unknown; some historians believe he came from Mozambique or Sudan and think he was a slave and child soldier before becoming a valet and bodyguard for the Jesuits.

His arrival caused a flurry, since the sight of a tall African man was unprecedented. The BBC reports that "people climbed over one another to get a glimpse of him with some being crushed to death." 

Japanese men in those days averaged about 5'2". The 6-foot, 2-inch Yasuke stood out physically, but also proved himself as a fierce warrior of great intelligence. He learned Japanese within a year and earned a spot next to the feudal lord Oda Nobunaga in battle.

The end of Nobunaga

The 16th-century leader found Yasuke intriguing, as he had "never seen an African before," according to CNN, and believed Yasuke was some sort of guardian or god, like Daikokuten, who oversaw prosperity and were displayed in religious institutions as a black statue. 

Nobunaga made Yasuke a weapon bearer in his army, according to History Extra and, after a short time, offered him a salary, a home in Kyoto, servants and a katana sword, which was a weapon given only to the samurai.

The partnership lasted only until 1582, when Nobunaga fought Akechi Mitsuhide and his army of 13,000. On a June morning, just before dawn, Misuhide's troops stormed the Honno-ji temple in Kyoto where Nobunaga and his men slept. A wounded Nobunaga committed seppuku, a ritual suicide, and asked his friend to ensure that his head remained with those loyal to him, according to Japan Times.  Yasuke took refuge with Nobunaga's son, Oda Nobutada, but the son, too, was overcome and killed by his own hand. What happened to Yasuke is unknown, according to Tokyo Weekender. Some believe, though, he was ordered back to the Jesuits.

Today, his name lives on in an anime series announced for Netflix, in movies, and TV.