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Black peoples in the Japanese imagination: The legend of Yasuke as told by novelist Esi Edugyan

Listen to this mesmerizing story of Yasuke by award-winning novelist, Esi Edugyan. Yasuke was the first and perhaps only Black samurai in 16th century feudal Japan. His story speaks of the incredible history of migrations and #intercultural encounters where not only peoples, but whole societies intersect and are transformed, but also of the figuration and representation of Black peoples within an Asian culture and historical memory.

According to Edugyan, Yasuke travelled from Africa via Portuguese (perhaps) colonial routes from east Africa (unknown precisely, but perhaps Mozambique) to Goa, Molucca, Macao and Nagasaki. He was a bodyguard protecting a travelling group of Italian Jesuit missionaries. (Imagine already the crossroads of intersecting cultures!). His arrival in feudal Japan, a set of competing fiefdoms led by warlords struck wonder and curiosity with people very likely struck by the physicality of Yasuke, a foot taller than average Japanese at that time and with black skin. Yet, as Edugyan continues, the warlord Oda Nobunaga, which describes as eccentric and sometimes wearing Western dress, after trying to ‘rub off’ Yasuke’s black skin decides that he could become a samurai. And indeed, Yasuke gains the privileges of a samurai including living quarters and servant and began training and to eventually fight battles with Oda Nobunaga. In one of these fateful battles, Nobunaga is defeated and has to undertake ritual disembowelling; Yasuke, however, is spared. He goes onto exile an thereafter, the trace of the rest of life fades.

Yet, the fascination this marvellous story of adventure, heroism, masculine friendship and for a lack of better phrase entrenched #intercultural #collaboration and #cooperation, continues to inspire. It has long been popularized in Japanese children’s fiction and currently on #Netflix as a Japanese manga series.

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