In a rare discovery for the history of Christianity in Japan, Bunkyo Ward in Tokyo has found what it believes are the remains of Italian priest Giovanni Battista Sidotti.
Excavation began in April 2014 on the site of Krishitan Yashiki (Christian Mansion), a former prison for Christian missionaries during the Edo Period (1603-1868), with the remains of three people discovered there that July.
It has recently been determined that the DNA of one set of remains closely matched Sidotti’s.
“It is the first time we’ve found a near match of the bones of a foreign missionary,” said Waseda University professor Akio Tanigawa. “This is an extremely important discovery for the history of Christianity in Japan.”
According to Bunkyo Ward, Sidotti came by ship from Italy to Japan’s Yakushima in today’s Kagoshima Prefecture in 1708. During the Edo Period, Japan was closed off from the world under the sakoku isolation policy, and Christianity was strictly forbidden.
After attempting to enter the country under the guise of a samurai, Sidotti was captured and later sent to the Krishitan Yashiki in Myogadani (now Kohinata, Bunkyo Ward), where he was confined until his death. He died of illness in 1714 aged 47 and was buried there, according to historical documents.
While in Krishitan Yashiki, Sidotti developed a rapport with Confucian scholar Hakuseki Arai, who questioned him directly.
Arai published the “Seiyo Kibun” (“Study of the Western World”) based on his conversations with Sidotti.
The DNA analysis reveals characteristics closely matching that of an Italian whose height was over 170 cm, well surpassing the average height of 156 cm of male Japanese living at the time. It also appears to be consistent with documentation that Sidotti was from 175 cm to 178 cm tall.
The evidence also suggests that based on earthenware and other objects discovered at the site, it would have been about the same time Sidotti was incarcerated around the middle of the Edo Period.
The remains of the two others discovered are presumed to be of Japanese men who likely cared for Sidotti, but it has not been confirmed.
“If there is a request to have his remains returned to Italy, we would like to discuss how to deal with this,” a Bunkyo Ward official said.
Tomoko Furui, an author who has written about Sidotti and who lives on Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, said she was moved by the new findings more than 300 years after his death.
“I want people in Japan and Italy to know about the meaning of Sidotti’s courage to come to Japan during that time,” she said.