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Yasuke: Representation of the First Black Samurai


I N S I G H T – A N I M E


Abrar Jamil


The late 1500s. The Sengoku period in Japan. Everywhere you go, swords clash and warriors are beheaded. And amidst all this commotion, you’re an African samurai. And it really isn’t (or is) a great time to be one.

Yasuke transports you to an alternate-reality Japan, reimagined with supernatural powers and mech in the 16th century. The storyline of the anime is analogous to the original real-life incidents centering the same character. While still underrated, this series showcases one of the most intriguing historical cases regarding ethnicity, cultural identity, and the feudal system in general.

The anime portrays a time in Japan when people of other nations, particularly Africa, were still a new sight in the country. The Nanban trade, starting 1943, marks a period of foreign arrival in Japan. When merchants from several European nations started pouring in, along came African people as their servants. One such event brings Eusebio Ibrahimo Baloi, our protagonist, as a bodyguard of Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, to Japan via a trade capital.

As he intercepts a fight at the port bay, Daimyo Nobunaga Oda is impressed by his physique and apt display of skill, after which he requests that the African man be washed clean. That’s where we get our first hint about Black people being a novelty in concurrent Japan.

The confusion surrounding Yasuke’s skin tone is perfectly reflected in Nobunaga’s asking him if he had inked himself black. Receiving the reply that it was his natural colour, Oda’s reaction is first surprise, then intrigue. He names the man Yasuke and appoints him as a high-ranking warrior in his empire.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is how Yasuke’s skin colour has little to no impact on the average Japanese population, even those in the top tier. As it’s shown later in the anime, Yasuke adopts a reclusive life as a village boatman. The acceptance of his skin colour as natural and not abnormal is also pretty mainstream within the village. We can assume that in that period of time people did not yet associate Black skin with a low social identity. 

A slightly different nuance in this mode of viewing other races stems partially from the laxity of Lord Nobunaga Oda, whose administrative leniency struck people as often contradictory to social customs. Nobunaga refused to believe in the Old Way of doing things, which loosely translates to the age-old manner of settling a dispute through a duel or battle. In this regard, he also chose to conduct important rituals differently, live a more relaxed lifestyle, and eased rules and regulations wherever possible.

A specific instance of this behaviour is seen during the celebratory feast after a clan war in his empire, where he openly applauds Yasuke amidst the other samurai officials, calling him up front to his throne and expressing his approval of Yasuke, the only non-Japanese person to have earned such a high place in the shogunate. It is thought that Nobunaga introduced a modern train of thought in Japan, particularly among people of similar statuses.

Even though Yasuke was held in high esteem by Nobunaga’s people for his extraordinary combat skills and allegiance to his master, one must address the fact that part of this is by way of them adhering to Nobunaga’s commands.


Naturally, a few of the more high-ranking warriors, in desperate wait of a promotion, grew green with envy and started holding a grudge against this African man, who had soared through the ranks to become a Samurai. To them, the first impression of him as a servant stuck, and they continued to use this as fuel for the fire of hatred they formed for Yasuke. Some assume this was the precedent for the anti-Black discrimination that emerged in Japan at that time.


However, Yasuke strived to blend in and adjust to the Japanese population. Most of this was possible entirely due to his easy going behaviour, disciplined etiquette, and decent conduct. The rest was a mixture of the perplexity and curiosity of the commons, regarding this race of humans that could be identified by a dark skin tone.

This kind of unconventional treatment of African natives has been a rare sight throughout history. When merchants and landlords around the globe enslaved countless Black people to respond to their every beck and call, Japanese inhabitants at that time chose to treat them like any other and judged them on the basis of character and not looks instead.

Exceptions among the populace did remain, but on the whole, this Asian country started seeing a future involving racial diversity. Controversy on this topic still exists, but whether or not this extent of liberty for Black people is still there in Japan, it all started from a zealous Black samurai.

Yasuke is a renowned historical figure, believed to be the first person ever of a dark skin colour to have gained popularity in Japan and have his name spelled out in countless documents and literary pieces throughout the ages. Today, this anime adaptation serves as a reminder of the glorious chain of events that established a bridge between nations unknowing of the vast array of different races right across their borders.

 


Abrar Jamil is a sucker for anime, ridiculous food combos, and would eat almost anything with chopsticks. Send him anime suggestions at [email protected]

 

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