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Black samurai

Yasuke: The True Story of an African Samurai
by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard
£20 (hardback)

In late July 1579, an enormous, well-dressed and well-armed African bodyguard stepped off a boat into the southern Japanese port of Kochinotsu.

Yasuke – perhaps from ‘Isaac’ in Amharic – had (probably) been abducted as a child by neighbouring Nilotic tribesmen, sold into slavery, and, by 23ish, already travelled (and fought) through northeast Africa, Arabia, and round the long coasts of both India and China.

His employer was the ‘most important Catholic in all of Asia’, Alessandro Valignano, papal ‘Visitor to the Indies’, here to impress the One True Faith upon the Japanese, and build on unsure Catholic footholds in the country.

But Yasuke promptly stole the show. He needed two beds, wore three men’s clothes sewn into one, and couldn’t fit through basic doors. His was a very noticeably muscular Christianity – and his blackness, far from hindering, had potentially divine connotations among the Japanese.

In the next three years he learned their ‘outlandish’ language, was given away (or sold?) to a mercurial warlord, nearly died thanks to an enthusiastic, festive mob, found himself exalted to the status of samurai, served at the forefront of ‘The Age of The Country at War’ – and then abruptly disappeared from the historical record.

The number of direct and unambiguous references to Yasuke in that record, though, is tiny, and beyond the ninjas, monks and ruthless warlords, typhoons, cliff-falls and disease that make up this undeniably rollicking historical yarn (both films and graphic novels have been fashioned out of it), much of this book is, of necessity, about the Jesuits and/or the Japanese internal conflicts of the 16th century.

The co-authorship of a Tokyo-based academic (Lockley) and a ‘historical adventure non-fiction’ writer (Girard) is not without its problems, either. The narrative leans lustily towards the Game of Thrones end of the spectrum, and the boisterous prose is well stocked with unverifiable adjectives, use of the word ‘likely’, and glimpses of Yasuke’s thought-process which surely cannot be substantiated. The extensive research is amply evidenced, but the delivery (there are no footnotes or attributions, per se) leaves the reader unclear as to which threads are the solid historical warp and weft and which are the more speculative embroidery. The chronology can be quite evasive. And there are sporadic and slightly effortful references to latter-day race/gender/slavery issues, which aren’t really in keeping with the adventure-story tone.

All of this, however, opens plenty of interesting windows into seafaring, high-caste homosexuality, palace architecture, and more – and the considerable endnotes and bibliography will be a trove for anyone who might prefer the sterner, rather more scholarly approach.

For Geographical

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