The African origins of Yasuke's name

I covered Yasuke, an African samurai in feudal Japan in 2019 (I honestly thought it was in 2020 but I digress). His story was retold by Satoshi Okunishi for a popular* Netflix animated series and Language Log investigated the African etymology of his name via Wikipedia. Apparently, there are a few theories:

  1. He was a member of the Yao people from Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique and his name was a portmanteau of Yao and the common Japanese male suffix -suke.
  2. He was a member of the Dinka people from South Sudan due to his height and skin tone, which was a defining characteristic of the Dinka.
  3. He was Ethiopian, according to this theory that suggests his original name might have been the Amharic Yisake or the Portuguese Isaque, derived from Isaac.

Who knows if any of them are correct. The Dinka theory gives me “all Black people look alike” vibes and his appearance was the only match (Adult Dinka men used to have decorative patterns tattooed on their faces and Yasuke apparently didn’t have any.) Nonetheless, etymology is fascinating and none of it takes away from how awesome Yasuke was.

* – Popular on Rotten Tomatoes (93% as of today), not so popular on IMDb (6.2/10) or MyAnimeList (5.8/10)

Yasuke - An African Samurai in Japan

Yasuke - An African Samurai in Japan

I watched The Last Samurai a few years ago and enjoyed it. While the movie was inspired by real life Westerners fighting in Asia and played up to the white saviour trope, it was enjoyable if not cliché. But this story is much more interesting.

Authors Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard recently published a book entitled African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan retelling the story of a retainer in feudal Japan who served under a warlord. The legend goes that Yasuke arrived in Japan in the late 16th century, having travelled the world after being kidnapped as a child. Being a black man in Japan caused a stir – many had never seen a man of his complexion. Being a polyglot made him even more mysterious. But his dark skin drew comparisons to Buddha. His presence was courted by Lord Nobunaga, a powerful warlord and Yasuke became one of his samurai. His ability to learn quickly helped him become a powerful figure in Japanese society.

Yasuke’s mythology has transcended centuries and Lockley and Girard’s book isn’t the first of its kind to tell his tale (there’s a book list below you can check out). In African Samurai, Lockley and Girard give an untold story of Yasuke’s life and travels, as well as a new chapter in Japan’s history. Now, yes, this is another story about people of colour written by white guys but it’s still beneficial that the story is being reviewed ecounted.

The good news is there is an upcoming anime about Yasuke and Lakeith Stanfield is set to voice the black samurai (excellent choice). It will be written by Boondocks’ co-director, LeSean Thomas and scored by Flying Lotus.

Update: Here’s are the visuals for the anime’s theme song, composed by Flying Lotus.

Yasuke | Official Teaser | Netflix

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