Five Things You Should Know About The Fascinating Actual History Behind Netflix’s ‘Yasuke’

This past weekend, Netflix’s highly-anticipated new anime, Yasuke, hit the streaming service and we here at Uproxx love it. The series follows the rise of the first Black samurai, Yasuke, during one of Japan’s most tumultuous periods of time, and while the show features an abundance of science fiction and supernatural elements, at its core is a very real story about a very real man. While the legend of Yasuke has been contested, forgotten, and rewritten, there is no denying the power of both him and his story, which is so grand it gives the Netflix series a run for its money. Here are five facts about the man who inspired not only the show, but countless people across the globe.

1. Yasuke was born in Africa before going to Japan as an Italian missionary’s bodyguard.

While there is some debate over Yasuke’s life prior to his arrival in Japan, it is believed he was born in either Mozambique, Ethiopia, or Sudan sometime in the 1550s. It is presumed that as a boy, Yasuke was kidnapped and enslaved by Portuguese traders, where he was trained to fight — as his quick rise to fame in Japan seem indictive of some combat experience. Others, however, say his enslavement wasn’t likely due to that very reason. Regardless, Yasuke entered the service of Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit missionary, and accompanied him on his mission to Japan in 1579.

2. Yasuke arrived in Japan during the Sengoku period, also known as the “warring states era.”

From 1467 to 1615, Japan was in a period of constant social upheaval and civil unrest, as many of the countries various daimyo — or feudal lords — waged war against one another for land, resources, and support from the Japanese emperor’s military, the shogunate. When Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579, tensions were once again increasing. However, Yasuke was fortunate enough to meet the first of the three men who would come to be known as the “three great unifiers of Japan”: Oda Nobunaga.

3. When Oda Nobunaga first met Yasuke, Nobunaga believed he was a god.

Due to Yasuke’s massive stature, resemblance to the dark-skinned Buddha, and resemblance to the guardian demon of prosperity, or “Daikokuten,” Oda Nobunaga believed Yasuke to be divine. After reportedly trying to rub the pigment off Yasuke, ending rumors it might have been ink, Nobunaga threw a feast in his honor and bestowed upon him many gifts. In addition, Nobunaga wasn’t the only one bewildered and impressed by Yasuke. According to historian Lawrence Winkler, his arrival in Kyoto caused “such a sensation that people climbed over one another to get a glimpse of him with some being crushed to death.”

4. Yasuke become the first foreign-born, and Black, samurai — and did so quickly.

Once settled in Japan, Yasuke was recruited by Nobunaga and rose through his ranks quickly. According to Floyd Webb, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the larger-than-life figure, Yasuke not only had incredible command of the Japanese language, but “understood the cultural language of Japan and loved to dance and perform Utenzi — a historic form of Swahili narrative poetry celebrating heroic deeds.” Within a year, he was riding alongside Nobunaga in battle, and was given his own home, servants, and a stipend. Yasuke was also given a katana — a symbol of the Japanese samurai class — and was allegedly taken on as Nobunaga’s weapon bearer, one of the most highly regarded, and trusted, positions in all of Japan.

5. Yasuke’s life was spared during the fall of Oda Nobunaga.

During the summer of 1582, Oda’s samurai general, Mitsuhide Akechi, attacked Oda’s residence in Kyoto, beginning the Battle of Honno-ji Temple. Unfortunately, this battle would mark the end of Nobunaga’s life and his mission of unifying Japan. Rather than lose his honor, Nobunaga took his own life, and performed the ritual “seppuku.” According to historian Thomas Lockley, author of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan, Yasuke was then taken prisoner by Akechi’s troops, but was ultimately spared because he was not Japanese. He then became a “ronin,” or samurai without a master. After the events of 1582, there are no records of the first Black samurai, whose history was all but lost for centuries. However, this intrigue allows the Yasuke showrunners complete freedom to interpret and speculate about Yasuke and his legacy.