I have talked a couple of times about how recent trends in my video game habit have led to a minor fascination with the Japanese language and Japanese history. Specifically, I have the Nioh games and Ghost of Tsushima to blame for this, both of which hang very fictional video game storylines on top of actual people and actual events in Japanese history. Yasuke, a (real) African who rose to be a samurai in the service of the (real) sixteenth-century warlord Oda Nobunaga is actually someone you fight in both of the Nioh games. The real Yasuke did not have lightning powers or a magical bear spirit that fought with him, but he was a real dude who actually existed.
I’ve gone looking a couple of times for a recent biography of Nobunaga in English, a book that does not seem to actually exist, but during one of those searches I happened upon this book, and it languished on my Amazon wish list for quite a while until it finally came out in paperback a bit ago and I ordered it. And considering what the book turned out to be, it’s really interesting that I only know about Yasuke through heavily fictionalized accounts of parts of his life– because while African Samurai is definitely a history book, it’s not at all like any of the books about historical figures that I have read in the past.
Thomas Lockley, one of this book’s two authors, is an American historian currently living in Japan. Geoffrey Girard, on the other hand, is a novelist, and while I didn’t delve into his background too deeply it doesn’t seem that he has any particular academic training in either history or Japan. While there are contemporary sources that attest to Yasuke’s existence– he is depicted in artwork and there are a handful of letters from a very prolific Jesuit monk who lived in Japan that discuss him, among a small number of other sources– there really isn’t enough information about him out there to fill up a 400+ page book without finding some way to provide more detail. And this book handles that dearth of source material in two ways: one, by making this a book that is nearly as much about Oda Nobunaga as it is Yasuke (which was a treat for me, since that’s what I was originally looking for) and two, by making the book almost more a piece of historical fiction than it is a traditional history. It is clear, in other words, that a novelist had his hand in writing this, and if I had to guess I’d suggest that the majority of the words on the page are Girard’s and not Lockley’s– although, to be clear, I would be guessing.
How is it historical fiction? Because far more of the book is about Yasuke’s thoughts and feelings and day-to-day life than the extant evidence we have about him would ever allow. For example, we know, because the Jesuit monk talked about it, that Nobunaga granted Yasuke a house on the grounds of his home and provided him with a short sword and a couple of servants. That’s factual, or at least as factual as a single secondhand account from five hundred and some-odd years ago can be presumed to be. But that’s all we know, and the two-page scene where Nobunaga summons Yasuke and then surprises him with the house, and Yasuke falling asleep on his new tatami in his home and awakening to find his new servants bowing at his feet, is pure invention. It’s not necessarily unreasonable invention– there was no point in the book where I thought that the authors were going too far in constructing a narrative out of what they had, and they only very rarely go so far as to utilize actual dialogue anywhere, but the simple fact is that that whole sequence is fictionalized, and the book is riddled with things like that. Yasuke is traveling with Nobunaga, and he reflects upon something-or-another that allows the authors to inject a piece of necessary historical background. We know that at one point Yasuke fought with a naginata, and so there’s a paragraph at one point where he’s thinking about buying one. That sort of thing.
So it’s necessary to be aware of what you’re reading while you’ve got this book in front of you– it never quite crosses over to the fabulism of, say, Dutch, Edmund Morris’ “memoir” of Ronald Reagan that actually literally inserted the author into Reagan’s life and pretended he was a witness to events that he wasn’t there for, but it’s absolutely not a straight work of history. (And while I’m comparing African Samurai to other books, I want to mention Ralph Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, which is another book that is supposed to be about one person and ends up being someone else along the way.) And there are several places where the authors are forced to bow to simple historical uncertainty: we lose track of Yasuke in the historical record at some point, and we don’t know how or where or when he died, so the authors actually mention multiple possibilities about what might have happened to him after the brief Nobunaga era ended; stories about enormous African warriors (Yasuke was 6’2″, and would have been easily a foot taller than anyone around him in Japan) in places where such people usually weren’t found, but they explicitly paint them as possibilities, of varying levels of likelihood, rather than picking one and ending the “story” with it.(*) But once you internalize that lightly-fictionalized aspect of the book, it’s a hell of an entertaining and informative read on a whole bunch of levels, and I’m really glad I ended up picking it up. I don’t know how big of a group of people I’m talking to when I say something like If you’ve ever wanted to know anything about sixteenth-century Japan, pick this up, but … yeah. Go do that.
(*) I wish they’d gotten more deeply into his name rather than relegating it to a footnote, but as you might have guessed, “Yasuke” almost certainly wasn’t his actual name; it’s likely that “Yasuke” is “Isaac” filtered through Japanese pronunciation, and “Isaac” almost certainly wouldn’t have been his African birth name either, for obvious reasons. So just because we see a story of a similarly large and skilled African warrior somewhere near Japan in the right time frame, knowing that other person’s name doesn’t automatically exclude it from being Yasuke, because Yasuke wasn’t Yasuke, and might have abandoned that name after leaving Japan.