After the Second World War, US Soldiers in Japan (flickr.com)
In April 2021 Netflix released the much-anticipated anime series Yasuke, inspired by the true story of a sixteenth century African Samurai. Created by LeSean Thomas and starring actor LaKeith Stanfield as the voice of Yasuke, the series has drawn attention to a curious rising popular fascination with the image of a Black samurai. Even before this latest Netflix project, Japanese cartoonist Takashi Okazaki had already developed a Yasuke-inspired character for his Afro Samurai manga and anime series. It was also reported that two Hollywood studios were lining up films based on Yasuke’s life, one of which was previously set to star the late Chadwick Boseman.
English and French language publications such as African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard, and Serge Bilé’s Yasuke: Le Samouraï Noir, have been influential in unearthing this history. While many parts of Yasuke’s life are still shrouded in mystery, after arriving to Japan in 1579 at the service of Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, he eventually crossed paths with none other than the powerful feudal lord and the first of the three “Great Unifiers” of Japan – Oda Nobunaga. Yasuke was shown favour and selected to join Nobunaga’s warrior clan. Bestowed with the rank of samurai, Yasuke fought alongside Nobunaga and was even present as a trusted retainer at the infamous Honnō-ji incident of 1582 when Nobunaga was forced to commit ritual suicide.
Spanning the full spectrum of fact and fiction, there is now an abundance of books, articles, YouTube videos, music productions and fashion designs that invoke the seemingly unlikely legend of an African samurai. Why is the story of a little-known sixteenth century Black samurai so important to audiences today?
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the “Kore de Wakatta! Sekai no Ima” news show on Japan’s public broadcaster (NHK) came under fire for its animated explanation of the Black Lives Matter protests, which used offensive caricatures depicting angry, muscular and unruly Black protestors. The controversy surrounding the Japanese show highlighted a broader and ongoing global problem of media mis-representation, which frequently perpetuates dangerous stereotypes that ties blackness to primitiveness and violent crime-ridden ghettos.
Entrusted with the fearsome katana sword, the armed Black samurai is a potent image that disrupts these stereotypes. As a samurai, Yasuke’s blackness becomes imbued with the qualities that are associated with the warrior class such as honour, self-control, mastery, respect and loyalty. Or rather, the conferring of the samurai status affirms that Africans always embodied these virtues. Certainly, imaginations of the Zen-like Japanese samurai are often filtered through the lens of Orientalist exoticism, which is similarly harmful as the contrasting image of an African “ignoble savage”. Yet, the existence of the liminal figure of Yasuke, who is both Black and samurai, unsettles the rudiments of such racial taxonomies and hierarchies.
While media coverage of Afro-Japanese encounters overwhelmingly focuses on incidents of racism or misunderstandings, which reinforces the idea of an unbridgeable divide between Blacks and Japanese, Yasuke’s interaction with Japan has helped illuminate a rich but overlooked history of Afro-Japanese connectivity that is more often characterized by an imagined solidarity.
A children’s book adaptation of Yasuke’s life by Mr. Imhotep emphasises a narrative arc of a journey from slavery in the hands of Europeans, to freedom and acceptance in a new land that does not discriminate against blackness but rather judges him by his skills and character. The author writes, “This had to be the land that he had been searching for. This was like home.” Indeed, imagining Japan as a place of emancipation and a refutation of white supremacy has been a consistent feature of Afro-Japanese exchanges, especially since the early twentieth century through the writings of African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois and others who praised Japan as a “champion of the darker races.” This message of Japan as a “safe space” away from Western racial oppression continues to be spread today through online forums and interviews on popular YouTube channels such as The Black Experience Japan. Communities of “Blerds” (Black nerds), Black cosplayers and Black otaku, have also long been vocal about the phenomenon of Afro-Japanese pop culture exchanges such as the influence of anime on American and British hip hop artists. Despite receiving mixed reviews, Netflix’s Yasuke series was ultimately hailed as a win for on and off-screen Black representation in anime, and celebrated for its role in shining a light on how Black audiences have looked to Japanimation as a source of inspiration.
To be sure, Japan has its fair share of problems with discrimination and colourism, and an increasing number of mixed Black-Japanese “hāfu” (half) celebrities such as the tennis superstar Naomi Osaka and basketball player Rui Hachimura have been subject to domestic racial abuse online. Lingering perceptions of Japanese homogeneity, the “impossible duality” of blackness and Japaneseness, to borrow a term from David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, means that their identities are constantly scrutinized. When sports stars keep quiet and excel for the nation much of the negative noise is drowned out. Yet, as demonstrated by other high-profile cases in the US and Europe, when Black athletes use their platform for social impact or performances fail to satisfy expectations, some take this as confirmation that they don’t truly belong and should “go home”.
It is unlikely that the lone figure of Yasuke, who is still largely unknown in Japan, will pave the way for a more inclusive vision of Japanese society. However, Yasuke’s role as a participant in Japanese history does provide an important precedent that begins to break down narratives that divide Black and Japanese as mutually exclusive. That Rui Hachimura self-branded his 2021 fashion collection as “Black Samurai” is perhaps no coincidence, and links his own life to an alternative story of a global and diverse Japan.
Yasuke isn’t the only person to be considered as a Black hero in Japanese history. Some have speculated that the first person to be given the title of Shogun in Japan’s Heian period (794 – 1185) was also a Black man named Sakanoue no Tamuramaro. While there is a lack of reliable evidence to support claims of Sakanoue’s African heritage, scholar John G. Russell has argued that the case of the “Black Shogun” tells us more about the complex set of obstacles and desires that emerge when attempting to discover Black historical figures, who have been forgotten, hidden or even erased. As demonstrated by the enormous cultural impact of the Black Panther movie, even if only fictional, the empowered Black superheroes of Wakanda offer a spectacle of representation and a multi-sensorial articulation of resistance against the myth of Black inferiority. While the Black Shogun and the Black Panther are compelling fantasies, the Black Samurai is a real-life story of a Black superhero who embodies the realization of an Afro-Asian solidarity. Herein lies Yasuke’s true symbolic potential for the 21st century.