In late July 1579, an enormous, well-dressed and well-armed African bodyguard stepped off a boat into the southern Japanese port of Kochinotsu. Yasuke had (probably) been abducted as a child by neighbouring Nilotic tribesmen, sold into slavery, and, by 23ish, already travelled (and fought) through northeast Africa, Arabia, and round the long coasts of both India and China.
His employer was the ‘most important Catholic in all of Asia’, Alessandro Valignano, papal ‘Visitor to the Indies’, but Yasuke promptly stole the show. He needed two beds, wore three men’s clothes sewn into one, and couldn’t fit through basic doors. In the next three years he learned the language, was given away to a mercurial warlord, found himself exalted to the status of samurai, and then abruptly disappeared.
The number of direct and unambiguous references to Yasuke in that record, though, is tiny, and beyond the ninjas, monks and ruthless warlords that make up this undeniably rollicking yarn, much of this book is, of necessity, about the Jesuits and/or the Japanese internal conflicts of the 16th century.
The co-authorship of a Tokyo-based academic (Lockley) and a ‘historical adventure non-fiction’ writer (Girard) is not without its problems, either. The narrative leans lustily towards Game of Thrones, and the boisterous prose is well stocked with unverifiable adjectives, use of the word ‘likely’, and glimpses of Yasuke’s thought-process which surely cannot be substantiated.
The extensive research is amply evidenced, but the delivery (there are no footnotes per se) leaves the reader unclear as to which threads are the solid historical warp and weft and which are the more speculative embroidery. And there are sporadic and effortful references to latter-day race/gender/slavery issues, which aren’t in keeping with the adventure-story tone.
All of this, however, opens plenty of interesting windows, and the considerable endnotes and bibliography will be a trove for anyone who might prefer a rather more scholarly approach.
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