African Samurai (a book review)

A drawn sword must taste blood…

Is it possible to be fascinated and disappointed in the same book? I’ve never had that experience before, but African Samurai handed it to me.

Written by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard, African Samurai chronicles the true life and times of Yasuke, an African vassal in the court of Oda Nobunaga in the late 16th-century Japan. Beginning with Yasuke’s arrival on a Portuguese ship while in the service of the Jesuits and going up to his disappearance from the history books after Nobunaga’s fall, the authors explore everything from slavery to the Jesuit mission in Asia to the culture of feudal Japan and the country’s relationship with the outside world.

The bio for Thomas Lockley on the book sleeve states he is an associate professor at Nihon University College of Law in Tokyo. As you read the book, it quickly becomes obvious how his adopted country has gripped his imagination. The lure of the legend of a black samurai in Nobunaga’s entourage must have been impossible to resist. Judging by the final chapter, which explore Yasuke’s place in modern Japanese art entertainment, it looks like Yasuke has never left the imaginations of that country either.

As for co-author Geoffrey Girard, I got the feeling that he served a different purpose on this book. Even though the story is technically non-fiction, the writing style is closer to narrative fiction. You won’t find lengthy footnotes and source citing on the pages. All of that is at the very end. Based on his bio, I believe Mr. Girard helped craft the flow of the narrative. I could be wrong.

So here’s the deal. To me, everything in this book is interesting and well worth reading about. It’s details Japanese politics and the violence of war at the time; it doesn’t shy away from the realities of how the Jesuits acted and what they were trying to accomplish in Japan; and it covers one of the more famous periods in Japanese history (at least to this reader). The fall of Nobunaga is a heck of a story. But this is called African Samurai, and therein lies the problem.

There isn’t enough Yasuke.

That Yasuke existed and that he served in Nobunaga’s court seem pretty clear, but there is very little historical information about where Yasuke came from and how he ended up on the Jesuit ship. And there’s very little information to enlighten the world on what Yasuke experienced in Japan, (aside from a major incident on shortly after his arrival), or what his contributions to Nobunaga were. To combat this problem, the author’s follow historical clues to help them engage in some educated speculation. There’s nothing wrong that. It’s been done before and done well (see The Woman Who Would Be King). I think a lot of history has to involve a degree a speculation.

The author’s do nice job here, but the lack of historical references give the them little to work with. As a result, there is a fountain of information about Nobunaga’s Japan, but Yasuke often feels like a footnote, as if he is an observer without a voice. By the end, you’ll know a lot about Nobunaga and the Jesuits, but not nearly as much about Yasuke.

Instead of classifying this as non-fiction, maybe the authors should have taken all their research and crafted a story they believed could have happened and then written it through the eyes of Yasuke. Yes, it would be considered fiction and you couldn’t put “The True Story…” on the cover. But it would have freed up the writers to open their imaginations beyond those few instances in history where Yasuke is mentioned.

On the other hand, maybe fictionalizing the story would sell short Yasuke’s place in history. It’s a unique place, a unique story for an unusual life for that time period, and it should be studied.

I really liked African Samurai. I just want more Yasuke!

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