Author Interview: Craig Shreve (The African Samurai)

This week, we’re talking with author Craig Shreve about his new novel, The African Samurai.

Set in late 16th-century Africa, India, Portugal, and Japan, The African Samurai is a powerful historical novel based on the true story of Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent.

Learn more about Craig Shreve and his books at and follow him on social media @ cgshreve

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Vulgar History Podcast

Author Interview: Craig Shreve (The African Samurai)

August 9, 2023

Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast, my name is Ann Foster. Sometimes on this show, we talk about people who are not women, and this is one of those times. Because when it’s a story that really has to do with marginalized people in history or lesser-known stories, I’m all about it and I was really, really, really excited when I heard about this book and then I was so excited to read this book because it is about a figure that I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this podcast just in passing because I’ve heard of him but I never really read up on him. It’s Yasuke who was a man who was born in Africa and wound up in Japan for reasons we’ll talk about in this episode, and he became known as the African Samurai. And that is the title of this book. The author is Craig Shreve who, clearly, it’s a story that he’s so passionate about and so interested in. I was really excited to talk with him about this book and about this really interesting character, Yasuke, the African Samurai so I hope you enjoy this talk with Craig Shreve.


Ann: So, I’m joined today by Craig Shreve whose new book, The African Samurai just came out at the time that you’re listening to this interview. So, welcome Craig.

Craig: Hello, thank you for having me.

Ann: I have to tell you, I was so excited when I first saw that this book existed because this is a figure from history, Yasuke, who I’ve always been really interested in, and I thought, what a perfect subject for a novel. My first question is where did you first hear about this person?

Craig: I first heard about them from just a short YouTube video that I saw years ago, and it really didn’t have very much detail, but it basically just covered the story of this 16th-century African man who was the world’s first-born foreign samurai. And when I saw it, I initially thought it was probably false because I couldn’t believe that that would be a true story and I had never heard it before. So, I started looking into it expecting to see that it’s been misrepresented or that it’s a hoax or something like that, and instead, the more I dove into it, the more I realized that it not only is a true story but there’s so much more to it than this introduction I’d had to it. So yeah, it definitely captured my attention immediately.

Ann: Can you tell everybody who doesn’t know who this person is, who Yasuke was?

Craig: Sure, he was a 16th-century African slave who travelled to Japan in the company of Jesuit missionaries and was gifted to a warlord named Oda Nobunaga who, if you’re familiar with Japanese history, he’s one of the most important figures in the nation’s history. The two formed an unlikely friendship and Yasuke was elevated to the role of samurai. When Nobunaga eventually met his end, betrayal at Honnô-ji, Yasuke was there with him at the end. So, the two were seemingly very close.

Ann: When you started looking into this story more to see what was true and what was real, what sources are there from that time explaining that this person was there and what he did?

Craig: Right, so I had to rely a lot on other people’s translations because the original sources, of course, there are some mentions of them in Japanese documents and more details about him from the Portuguese letters, from the Jesuits who were kind of writing back to the church. So, those are really kind of the primary sources, the Jesuit letters are probably the biggest source and then there’s also some documentation from some of the Japanese writings of the time.

Ann: Yeah, am I right there are some drawings? I’ve seen, I think, old drawings with him in them.

Craig: There are drawings, and some people will dispute whether it’s him or not. For instance, there’s one I think of some of the Jesuits arriving on ships and there’s an African man there, the one where he’s holding the umbrella, I don’t know if that’s the one you saw. That’s one that people think is probably Yasuke. There’s also, I think it’s a silkscreen from around that time of a sumo tournament where one of the sumo wrestlers is considerably darker than the rest and so some people think that that was possibly Yasuke as well.

Ann: So, it’s for sure this person, I don’t know, I completely understand that this was a real person who was there, but the things you’re saying, this is the evidence, this is the proof that this isn’t a made-up story, this is a real person.

Craig: Yeah so, the proof is from the letters written by the Jesuits and et cetera. So yeah, he’s a real person and a lot of the elements of the book, you have to match up who he is with and then study what that person was doing. So, in terms of tracking his path through Japan, where he was and who he was with, there’s a lot of research by proxy. So, knowing that he was with Valignano up to a point, you can follow Valignano’s path. And then knowing at which point he came into Nobunaga’s service; you start tracking Nobunaga. So yeah, there’s not a lot of primary sourcing that lays out step-by-step. There are certainly a lot of blanks to fill in, and a lot of things that are up to interpretation as well. But yeah, it’s an interesting process, you kind of follow his path by seeing who he was attached to.

Ann: So, at what point did you decide, I’m going to be the one who is going to write the historical fiction novel about this person?

Craig: I’d been doing this research, I think it was around either 2017 or 2018, but I think 2017 when I first heard of Yasuke so I started doing research and certainly, I had the idea that it would make a really great story but I wasn’t at all committed to writing it at that point because it does involve a lot of Japanese history. So, I was concerned that maybe I wasn’t the right person to be doing this. But really what it came down to is when the pandemic hit and I had so much free time on my hands and had to do something to keep myself from going nuts, I spent some time going through it and thinking about it and this is kind of why I decided to write this in the first person. If you write it in the third person, there’s so much other history that you can cover with this and so many other interesting people who are not a part of this book, unfortunately. But I decided I’d write it in the first person and keep the focus on Yasuke and I felt comfortable doing that. It did mean cutting out a lot of other interesting characters in history but that was the way that I felt comfortable going forward with it.

I really felt, there are some non-fiction books written about Yasuke and some of them are quite good, but I didn’t see anything in English language fiction about Yasuke, so that was kind of the big motivator to do this. Fiction of course allows you to create more of a character and just, you know, you can be a little freer I guess in terms of trying to make this a real person and flesh them out as a real person as opposed to in non-fiction where you’re limited to what’s available.

Ann: That was something too when I saw that this book was coming out, I was like, “Oh, I’m sure there’s been other novels about Yasuke before, it’s such an interesting story.” And like you just said, there really hasn’t been so it’s a story that I think is so cinematic and such a great story, what a gift to you as a writer to be able to use this as a foundation for your novel.

Craig: Yeah, absolutely. It’s an idea that anytime I talk to somebody about it, they’re immediately fascinated by it. So, it’s never a hard sell. [chuckles] It appeals to a broad, broad stretch of people. Like I said, basically everyone I’ve come across. They’ll say, “That’s not usually my thing but it sounds really interesting.” It’s a story that I think people are going to really relate to.

Ann: And it’s also, I think just where I’d heard of Yasuke before, briefly in the periphery, I’d probably seen the same YouTube video you had as well and I always had it in the back of my mind that people think in times like this, the 16th century, everyone kind of stayed in their own country for the most part, people didn’t internationally travel. This man from Africa – and he got there because of slavery, he wasn’t travelling around freely – went there and was clearly accepted by the Japanese people. It’s such an interesting example that people have been travelling since so much earlier than a lot of people think.

Craig: Yeah, so there’s a couple of things there. That was one of the things that interested me as well, that because the Japanese at that time had so little interaction with Africans, there were no negative stereotypes or anything associated with this skin colour that he had to overcome. There certainly would have been resistance from some just because he was a foreigner but no more resistance than the Europeans. So, that’s kind of a unique situation in fiction, I’ve really never come across that before. So, that was a really interesting element to me.

As far as the movement, while I was researching this of course, I ended up going down all these rabbit holes and I started reading about Black Vikings and Black cowboys and Black conquistadors and it really made me recognize that Black history is not a separate element from the rest of world history. Africans and Caribbeans were part of all these major events around the world and in a lot of cases maybe, their stories weren’t recognized or weren’t recorded but they were there. So, I really loved the idea of this story being a piece of Black history but that has a place in the larger world history context.

Ann: There’s a part in your book that really stood out to me, I think it’s when he’s first meeting the Japanese people and they say, “Okay, so you’re also European, you came with the Europeans?” And he’s like, “No, no. I’m from Africa.” So, he’s like, “Okay, so Africans and Europeans, they work together a lot? And he’s like, [stifled] “Eugh, not really,” [laughs] just having to explain…

Craig: Yeah! Again, I had fun writing that scene because, you know, I guess today we look at African and European as being vastly different but to the Japanese of the day, they’re both just not Japanese. They didn’t make much of a distinction between, “I don’t care if you came from here or there, you’re just from somewhere else,” kind of thing. So, that was kind of interesting to be able to play around with that in that scene. That does seem to be, from what I’ve been able to read about race relations in that time – there’s not a lot, of course, on race relations at that time but from what I was able to read – that does seem to be the case.

Ann: Yeah. Just reading the book, which I did read and which I really enjoyed… Just so the listeners know, who haven’t read it yet, it’s just so interesting… You’re describing a person from Africa who was brought to Japan by the Portuguese. It’s just an element of world history, it’s so different, there’s not that Western lens that there so often is in a historical fiction book. It’s completely different and that was so refreshing and so interesting.

Craig: Yeah! You know obviously, the US didn’t exist yet. So, it certainly kind of focused on more of that region. It is an interesting story because people from Europe, people from Africa, people from Japan of course, there are characters from each of those areas who play a central role in this. Nobody is a background character, it’s really these three cultures intermingling.

And one of the other things… Initially, I thought that this would be a story about a culture clash. But as I was working through the story, I started to see all these interesting, I don’t know, parallels, with African and Asian cultures that I’d never considered before. I think the one that struck me most was the legends around Mount Namuli in Mozambique and Mount Fuji in Japan. But then also, the no masks and the masks that the Africans used in the festivals, the music and dancing, the tradition of speaking to your ancestors, and a lot of things like that, there were all these parallels. So, it was nice to kind of be surprised by that and be able to shift the story so that instead of writing about a culture clash, it’s these two men from vastly different cultures and backgrounds and upbringings who realize that they have a lot more in common than they would have thought.

Ann: Yeah, so when you were deciding where– I mean, you say this, I think in the Afterword in your book, no one knows where Yasuke was from, but you had to make a decision when you were writing this book.

Craig: There’s a book by a Jesuit priest named Solier, I think his name is, that does say that Yasuke is from the Makua tribe in Mozambique. However, that book was written in 1627 so it wasn’t contemporary. So, people do dispute that, there’s plenty of reasons to dispute the accuracy of that but I went with that because that’s the only document that speaks about his origin. But yeah, there are other people who think that he was probably from Ethiopia or from Sudan, and I think they kind of base that off of the limited descriptions of his appearance or of the kind of activities of slave traders during that time. But yeah, I just went with the document even though there is reason to dispute it.

Ann: And I think it’s really beautiful the way that you work in the aspects of his African heritage in the book. Again, I don’t know how much of this you’re drawing from the sources, but he grew up until the age of about 12, probably, in Africa, so he has memory of it, but it’s been suppressed. As he’s in Japan, in your book you’re showing him remembering so much stuff, so it’s a way to explain that part of his life as well. Was that always part of your plan? To bring in his memories of Africa as well?

Craig: Actually, in earlier drafts, I wrote it more chronologically where a lot of his childhood was at the front. And then working with the editor, she suggested that the book really should start with his arrival in Japan and then you work that in. So, we kind of significantly reworked it to have that come throughout the novel, which I think worked really well. That part of it is, it’s based off the actual customs of the Makua tribe but as far as his childhood, that is all you know, fictionalized. There’s nothing recorded about that so that’s not based off of any sourcing.

Ann: And there’s something, I just wanted to bring it up because it really stuck with me, and I took a screen capture of this part of your book. In the Afterword you’re talking about the difference between written sources and oral traditions. Can you talk about that?

Craig: So, Yasuke disappears from the historical record after the events that are presented here. And that made me realize that really all we have of him are observations of him. Everything that is written about Yasuke was written by the Japanese or by the Portuguese; we don’t have a diary, a letter, a journal, there’s nothing from Yasuke himself. It kind of makes me sad in a way. Because of that, we can only really talk about his actions and, you know, he’s described as being well-behaved and proper in all situations, that kind of thing, but you have no idea if that’s who he is or if he felt he had to be that way. I can’t tell you if Yasuke was proud or happy, sad, depressed, or bitter; we don’t know any of his internal world because we don’t have any written record from him.

But expanding that out further, that’s true to some extent about most of the histories of cultures that practice oral history, and it made me think that… Now, again, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in school so maybe things have changed but I know when I was in school learning about Indigenous history, it was all based off of observations from settlers. And so, it’s kind of amazing and a little bit depressing as well to think of how much history is unknown or possibly just lost because we don’t have written records from some cultures.

Ann: Exactly. And that’s where I think that historical fiction can really come in and help fill those gaps in a way; to take the few things that we know about someone like Yasuke, the observations, and then to develop them into a story, so returning to a storytelling manner.

Craig: Yeah, I always think a person’s story is more powerful than any overwhelming statistics or anything like that. If you can write one person’s story that people connect with, it can help them understand an entire life, an entire culture, et cetera. So yeah, I hope that comes through.

Ann: So, you mentioned earlier that you were, during the pandemic et cetera, but then also, you’re writing this book about Japan from the point of view of a man from Africa. You say this also in your Afterword that you weren’t able to travel to Japan yourself to see these places. Can you talk about how you were able to immerse yourself in the culture and learn more about it?

Craig: Yeah, so initially, of course, I just started with books and internet sourcing and then expanded from there to podcasts and YouTube series. There are some really good YouTube series covering this period of history. So eventually, once I got to the point where I was going to write about this, by that point, the pandemic had started, and travel was restricted. So, I hired a guide in Japan to visit some sites for me.

On some sites, we were able to do live walk-throughs so it was early morning his time and late night my time but in other places, that didn’t work out so he would do recorded walk-throughs and send those to me and provide some context. During the editing process, then I was able to go to Japan, earlier this year. We didn’t close the book until, I think, April, so I was able to travel earlier this year and visit the ruins at Azuchi Castle and the reconstruction of Honnô-ji and a few other sites, and certainly was relieved to find that it was the way that I had pictured it. But yeah, definitely being in lockdown presented some challenges during the times I was working on the early drafts.

Ann: I was also wondering what your personal background is with things like martial arts and things like that? Is that something you’re involved with in your personal life?

Craig: Not a lot but actually, a number of years ago, I did kendo lessons; I didn’t stick with it too long, maybe 6 months of kendo lessons. So, in the book when you read about Yasuke struggling with the kneeling, how his knees and ankles ache, that, unfortunately, is based off of real-life experience. I loved the training, and I hated the kneeling. I’m not a very flexible person so that was very painful for me. Even just a couple minutes at the beginning and a couple minutes at the end, that was by far the worst part of the training for me. But that was before I heard anything about Yasuke so that was just kind of something I did as a matter of interest. But yeah, it proved to be helpful, knowing a little bit about sword fighting.

Ann: I was just wondering because those parts of the book, I felt like they were written and I was like, “This is a person who knows this world.” So, convincing job. [laughs]

Craig: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, I have some experience, but I certainly don’t think I would have lasted long in that period. [chuckles]

Ann: Can you talk about what the role of a samurai was? It’s a word that is pretty widely known but until I read this book, I didn’t specifically know what a samurai meant. Can you explain what that role is in Japanese culture at that time?

Craig: Yeah, so there’s a couple things. The other term that’s used quite a bit is the ashigaru, those are the foot soldiers; they are conscripted soldiers, they do other things with their lives and are called into service when they’re required. Samurai were professional soldiers who were paid to train and so fighting was their job. But it’s also like a social class as well, the ranking just below the nobility so they had privileges that commoners didn’t have.

So, it’s interesting that during Nobunaga’s period, there was mobility between classes and that’s why you see Yasuke elevated to the role of samurai and there were a few others as well. But Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, enforced a strict class policy so that mobility went away and from that point forward, it became an inherited position. But during Nobunaga’s reign, there was mobility between classes, so people were elevated based off of merit.

One of the other things that I learned, or that became apparent to me while I was researching this was that the idea of impartially written history is a pretty recent concept. So, you’ll see stories about Nobunaga that present him as an actual demon and then you’ll see other stories that talk about him as a progressive nation-builder. I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between but on this note in particular, he does seem to be quite progressive in terms of promoting people off of merit rather than their social class or their family, et cetera.

Ann: And what a time for Yasuke to have arrived there. For him to have been given as a gift as an enslaved person but then he wound up in a place in this time where social mobility was possible. He didn’t just go there and get forced into a similar role; he was able to make a name for himself. How fortunate!

Craig: Exactly. There are probably a thousand points along the way where if one thing goes different, nobody knows who he is. That’s also part of what makes it an incredible story but also makes you think of how many of those people were lost. If you think about slavery and you think about how many millions of people never had an opportunity to be anything, they could have been doctors, they could have been scientists, humanitarians, et cetera, you know, but never had an opportunity. So, Yasuke to me is an example of someone who, through these slivers of fate did have an opportunity and as a result, we still know who he is today. It’s a very narrow line between being remembered and forgotten.

Ann: Exactly. And just speaking of, we know who he is today. You mentioned there was the YouTube you saw before. Wasn’t there also an animated series about Yasuke?

Craig: There’s an animated Netflix series called Yasuke, but it is kind of science fiction-based, it’s not meant to be historically accurate. Although it does bring in some of the characters and some of the historical elements, but it’s written as a science fiction fantasy. But it’s a good series and anything that helps introduce this character to an audience is appealing.

Ann: Exactly and I think people who watch that could be like you were, “Was this a real person?” and then they can do a deep dive to see, who is this really? But speaking of Netflix and series, your book has been optioned, right? It’s being turned into a series?

Craig: Yes, and the screenwriter and is the screenwriter of the animated series.

Ann: Oh! [laughs]

Craig: He’s been wanting to do a more accurate retelling of it, so it worked out really well. He’s actually a former Marine who was stationed in Japan for a while, that’s how he came across the story, so he was already familiar with the story. We’ve had a couple of conversations and he’s got some really great ideas so there was some development work that occurred on it then with the Writers Guild strike that’s currently in place, of course, everything is stalled so we’ll see how that strike goes. But yeah, it’s exciting to know that that’s on the horizon and again, bringing this character to a larger audience.

Ann: And that’s why I was really happy when I saw it. I don’t know if this is in the published version but in the advanced reader copy I got, there’s a forward that explains that this series has been optioned and all that sort of stuff. And whenever I come across a story like this that’s of a person from history who is not widely known, especially a Black person or person from a marginalized background I always think, “Why isn’t this a movie? This should be a movie.” [Craig laughs] And then this one I’m like, “Oh, it is! It’s going to be a TV series. Good.” [laughs]

Craig: Yeah, I don’t think that will be mentioned in the published version but yeah certainly it stood out as a very cinematic story right from the beginning. As soon as I heard about it, probably the same as your reaction where you feel like this definitely belongs on a screen. So yeah, I’m glad it has found its way into the right hands for that.

Ann: Again, just really threading the needle. There wasn’t really a major English language novel about this and then you’re the person who wrote it. And then this screenwriter who has been wanting to turn this finds out about your book. So, it’s a series of really happy, happy, lucky things.

Craig: For sure, yeah. I think they just ended up with it through word of mouth because obviously the book is not published yet so I was quite surprised when they reached out. But I asked them how they got hold of it and I think somebody wrote a notice about the publication and contacted someone and said, “Hey, you might be interested,” and through word of mouth it floated around and ended up in the right people’s hands.

Ann: Again, it just speaks to the fact that this man’s story, like you said, whenever you mention it to people, even people who don’t read historical fiction or whatever, everyone is interested. This story is just inherently interesting.

Craig: Yeah, it’s also been picked up by some international publishers and it’s been picked up in some areas where there’s not a significant Black population or Japanese population. I felt like the story had a universal appeal and so, you know, that kind of confirms that to me, to know that publishing professionals are looking at this and saying it’s not a niche story, by any means, this is something that people of all backgrounds are going to be interested in.

Ann: Which is so interesting because it’s the story of a man from Africa going to Japan. There’s not the typical white saviour character at all, it’s really just people of colour for the most part.

Craig: So, that was one thing I was conscious of when I was writing it, I also didn’t want to turn him into a Black saviour. I didn’t want to write a story of “Yasuke saves Japan.” So, I was very conscious of trying not to over-inflate his importance through any of the events. But again, by kind of staying focused on his story, I was able to tell an interesting story without having him save the world.

Ann: Yeah! And again, it’s so interesting to read the book where… It’s an African man in Japan. There are so many fictional novels about, I don’t know, Henry VIII, Napoleon, or George Washington. So, it’s really great to read this story that’s got nothing to do with England or kings or anything. It’s just Japan, Africa, that’s where the story is set. It was really refreshing to me.

Craig: Yeah, and I think a lot of people when they read it are going to have… So, when I started researching it, I thought, “I know Japanese history not too badly.” And then as I started looking into it, I realized, “Oh no, there’s so much more here that I didn’t know.” And I think from early readers, there’s been that response as well, that they didn’t realize how much Japanese history they didn’t know, kind of thing. So, I’m excited about that element of it as well.

Ann: So, I guess my final question for you would just be the book… Again, we’re recording this earlier, this episode is going to come out the same week that your book is published. So, what do you hope people get out of your book when they’re able to read it?

Craig: I hope they really connect with the character because that’s what I was most focused on, just trying to portray this individual in a realistic way but a very human way of someone who– One of the things that really attracted me about this character is his adaptability. So many times throughout his life, his circumstances change drastically and often quite suddenly. Every time, it would be easy for him to think of himself as a victim or kind of give in. But instead, he bounces back and finds a way to make himself more valuable than the original person we thought he would be. So, he proves his value at every step along the way and shows an incredible amount of adaptability and resiliency. So yeah, I hope people just connect with the character.

And also, even though you know, there are some dark moments in the book, there’s some violence – which I really wanted to portray because it was a violent time, I didn’t want to shy away from any of those elements – but ultimately, I hope people find this story to be a positive and a hopeful one.

Ann: Absolutely, that’s what I found about it as well.

Thank you for joining me to talk about your book. It was the sort of book that I read and thought, “I’m so glad I get to talk to the author,” because I want to let you know how much I enjoyed it but also, every question I just asked. I really wanted to know how this came to be, and how you connected with this story. So, thank you so much for joining me today. Best of luck with your book launch!

Craig: Oh yes, thank you so much! I love the podcast, I’m looking forward to hearing it released, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Ann: And I just want to ask, if people want to keep up with you, I assume there’s going to be events and things when your book comes out. Do you have a website or social media where people can follow you?

Craig: So, my website is Instagram would be best for social media which is @CG_Shreve. So yeah, there will be a launch and then I have a number of festival appearances that are booked and I’m sure there will be more coming. So yeah, stay tuned for updates.

Ann: Fabulous. Thank you again so much for joining me today.

Craig: Thank you!


So, Craig’s book, The African Samurai is now available as of the time you’re hearing this episode, it’s available wherever you get books. I think it’s such an important and interesting book and it’s a story that so many people, I think, will enjoy knowing about and clearly Craig was the right person to be sharing this story. So, I hope you all check out this book. There’s a link in my show notes if you buy it using that Bookshop link then a little bit of money goes to help support this podcast. But also, you can just keep up with Craig and his book on his website which is

If you want to keep up with me and this podcast, I’m on Instagram and also on Threads. Actually, Craig is on Threads! I saw him there as well. It’s an interesting time to be promoting a book when all the social media is sort of fluctuating. But he’s there too so if you’re on Threads you should follow Craig there. And while you’re there, I’m also there. So, @VulgarHistoryPod on Instagram and Threads. I’m also on TikTok @VulgarHistory.

You can pick up some Vulgar History merchandise at or if you’re outside the US you can also get merch at I also have a Patreon where for at least $1/month, if you pledge that support to me, then you get early, ad-free access to all episodes of Vulgar History. If you pledge $5 or more a month then you also get bonus episodes and access to our exclusive Discord community. Anyway, you can learn more about that at And if you want to give it a try, you can get a 7-day free trial and see what it’s all about. Anyway, I’m sure you can tell, I was really excited to talk to Craig, I’m really excited about this book. I hope everybody reads this book and until next time, keep your pants on and your tits out!

Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.

Transcribed by Aveline Malek at



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