Who was Yasuke and what does he mean to Blerds and Black history?

Yasuke's disputed ascent to the rank of samurai was a notable outlier because, in addition to not being a member of the class by birth, he was also an outsider because of his skin color.

The tale of Yasuke, which dates to the 16th century, is an old one: An African man — the first that Japan ever saw  — becomes the first non-Japanese to hold the rank of samurai. However, his name is likely not found in the history textbooks used in most schools.

Despite accomplishing something so extraordinary — and, to put it simply, unheard of — Yasuke’s story has yet to be widely known, at least in the eyes of a Hilton George, founder of Blerdcon, the popular Black nerd convention — the biggest multi-fandom event of its kind — that focuses on nerd culture, diversity, inclusion, gaming, anime, cosplay, sci-fi, music and comics. To him, it’s no secret that we are unearthing, sharing and celebrating our history in real time because it has not yet been entirely told.

“We as a nerd community, and we as a Black community in general, share a lot of resonance with the Yasuke story and with the Yasuke individual,” George, who co-founded Blerdcon in 2016 with Hassan Parrish, told theGrio. “We have, often as people, not been told and have not been recognized for things, accomplishments, places we’ve pioneered, achievements we’ve achieved and flags that we’ve marked throughout not just American history, but world history.”

Although actual archival information about Yasuke is sparse, various versions of narratives about his existence have seen daylight in recent years. As the Smithsonian noted, his persona is featured in “Nioh,” a 2017 video game. Three years later, the children’s book, “Yasuke: The Legend of the African Samurai,” by Jamal Turner was published. In 2021, Netflix released a six-part action anime series, “Yasuke,” from Black animation director LeSean Thomas and featuring actor Lakeith Stanfield voicing the titular character.

Yasuke was the first African and first non-Japanese man to hold the title of samurai in Japan. (Illustration: Anthony Azekwoh via Creative Commons)

Samurai, or “one who serves,” were in and of themselves a social class. Their duties often included policing, managing the rice tax, bodyguarding, doing administrative work if they were affluent or working for wealthy people and fighting when necessary.

Even though having the title had advantages, whether social or financial, not all samurai were created equally. Yasuke’s disputed ascent to the rank of samurai was a notable outlier because, in addition to not being a member of the class by birth, he was also an outsider on the grounds of skin color and nation.

In 2019 — the year before he died from colon cancer — “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman reportedly signed a deal to bring Yasuke to live-action life on the big screen.

While more and more Black nerds are becoming familiar with Yasuke’s story, you will still see few of them dressing up as him, according to Hilton, because samurai cosplay, with all its layers and intricate features, is difficult to pull off.

“I think that Yasuke’s real story has yet to be told and I’m hoping that it gets picked up and you’ll start to see more portrayals of him because he was such a remarkable figure,” George said. “When we do, I think it’s going to be nothing less than fantastic because so much of where he was and what he did had a costuming aspect to it.”

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