When I hear the term Afro-Samurai I usually think of the Anime cartoon or the action movie by Jim Kelly Black Samurai. But where did the idea of the Afro-Samurai come from? It’s not an original idea. Somewhere in the world an idea has already been thought of or seen. It’s just a matter of whether or not that someone can make that idea a reality. The same concept holds true for the Afro-Samurai.
I had a friend show me a picture of a man named Yasuke who in fact was a black samurai. So initially, the article was going to be about him. As I started to do a little research of my own, I found that while Yasuke was a legitimate samurai, (pause for dramatic affect) he was not the first black samurai. Sakanoue no Tamuramaro who lived between 758 – June 17, 811 A.D. was not only called Sei-i-tai Shogun, and the first warrior statesmen of Japan but he was also black. I know what some or all you are thinking, ” You said Samurai, you didn’t say Shogun! “. I will grant you that but, you have to understand that Samurai become Shogun.
In 1989, Dr. Mark Hyman authored a booklet entitled Black Shogun of Japan in which he stated that “The fact remains that Sakanoue no Tamuramaro was an African. He was Japanese. He was a great fighting General. He was a Japanese Shogun.” Tamuramaro was a warrior symbolized in early Japanese history as a “paragon of military virtues.” He was prominent during the rule of the Japanese Emperor Kwammu, who reigned from 782- 806 A.D.
According to the Shoku Nihongi, an official historical record, The Sakaue clan is descended from Emperor Ling of Han China. The Sakaue clan’s family tree shows that Tamuramaro is a 14th-generation descendent of Ling. In April 1911 the Journal of Race Development published an essay by Alexander Francis Chamberlain entitled “The Contribution of the Negro to Human Civilization.” He stated “And we can cross the whole of Asia and find the Negro again, for when, in far-off Japan, the ancestors of the modern Japanese were making their way northward against the Ainu, the aborigines of that country, the leader of their armies was Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, a famous general and a Negro.”
Throughout his career Tamuramaro held many high civil and military positions and worked for three Emperors: Emperor Kammu, Emperor Heizei and Emperor Saga. In 797 was when he was named “barbarian-subduing Generalissimo” or (Sei-i Tai-Shogun), and in 801-802 he again campaigned in northern Japan, establishing fortresses at Izawa and Shiwa and effectively subjugating the Ainu. In 810 he helped to suppress an attempt to restore the retired emperor Heizei to the throne. In 811, the year he died, he attained the title of Great Counselor (dainagon) and Minister of War (hyobukyo).
Sakanoue no Tamuramaro was buried in the village of Kurisu, near Kyoto and it is believed his tomb is the one known as Shogun-zuka. Tamuramaro is the founder of the famous temple Kiyomizu-dera. His bow, arrows, quiver and sword were buried with him by order of Emperor Saga.
It is said that the famous Tanabata festivals and parades of Aomori prefecture (also celebrated in the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture) were popularized in remembrance of Sakanoue no Tamuramaro’s campaign to subdue the tribal societies then living in Tōhoku. These annual matsuri are called the Nebuta festival in Aomori City and Neputa festival (ねぷた祭り) in Hirosaki City. Interestingly enough there is no record of Tamuramaro ever going north of Iwate prefecture.
I’m sure there are going to be more skeptics than just those that don’t believe there was a black Samurai (I refer you to the Japanese Proverb). I know someone is going to say that the term Samurai didn’t appear until between 905-914. I will admit, you are correct, however, the terms “saburau and saburai” were used prior to the term Samurai. Conversely, the Samurai didn’t emerge as an elite class until the 1100’s holding both military and political power.
It is interesting to know that Samurai philosophy still influence not only the Japanese people but also people all over the world. Black people have had a hand in that philosophy which has influenced the shape of the world and one of those people are celebrated in Japan annually.
“For a Samurai to be brave, he must have a bit of Black blood.”