Biography of an African slave who rose to fame and fortune in 16th-century Japan.
Making his literary debut, Lockley (Nihon Univ. College of Law) teams up with Girard (Mary Rose, 2018, etc.) to create a fast-paced, novelistic history of Japan’s feudal past, centered on the life of Yasuke, who arrived in Japan in 1579 as the indentured bodyguard and valet of Alessandro Valignano, a wealthy and influential Portuguese Jesuit missionary. Drawing on abundant sources, including archival material, the authors offer a panoramic view of politics, sex, religion, and war. They recount in horrifying detail the massacre of African families and kidnapping of boys by Arab, Persian, and Indian slave merchants that resulted in Yasuke’s enslavement. Growing up in India as a boy soldier, he was “trained in violence, as well as comportment and service,” making him an appealing servant for the Jesuits, who fanned out across Japan, determined to save souls. Over six feet tall, strong and muscular, Yasuke was an intimidating presence and protector as the Jesuits battled religious and political factions in a nation beset by endlessly warring factions. Blood and gore ooze from the pages as the authors describe ruthless slaughter, beheadings, disembowelment, rapes, and torture. Ninjas, who “killed only for money, and had no honor beyond what they were paid,” were hardly the most vicious, and Yasuke proved himself a valiant fighter. Seeking favor with the mighty warlord Oda Nobunaga, Valignano handed over Yasuke as “a weapon bearer and novelty.” Delighted, the warlord awarded Yasuke the elite status of samurai. “You are my black warrior,” Nobunaga proclaimed. “The demon who will ride beside me into battle, the dark angel who protects me and my family.” Because black skin, although unusual in Japan at the time, carried “entirely positive” connotations, Yasuke became revered, and his prowess became legendary. “People in the streets did not only gape at him,” the authors write, “they bowed, heads to the earth, as they addressed him.”
A rich portrait of a brutal age.