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Unearthing the Grave of Missionary Giovanni Battista Sidotti

Akio Tanigawa
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

On the evening of July 25, 2014, I was walking from Myogadani Subway Station toward the Kohinata Block 1 East ruins excavation site. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bunkyo City Board of Education had contacted me to take a look at a grave at the excavation site from a Kirishitan (early Japanese Christian) residence of the Edo period (1603–1868). I remember it being very hot that day.

When I arrived at the site, I was guided to an area where three graves were being inspected. Each of them was buried in the ground. The grave on the west side might have been a hayaoke (a roughly made, simple coffin). The body had been buried in a sitting position. This was a typical form of burial in the Edo period. In contrast, the grave in the center was different. The grave was rectangular-shaped and the buried body was lying on its side in what is called an extended burial. The grave on the east side was also rectangular-shaped like the central grave.

Because I knew that the Edo period Kirishitan residence was in this area, I had a hunch that this could be a grave of a Christian. Christian graves take the form of an extended burial. I immediately instructed the Board of Education members and inspection overseers on how to excavate the graves. In addition, I asked Professor Kazuhiro Sakaue of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo to come to the site, for extreme care is necessary when excavating human bones, and also suggested to carry out DNA analysis on the human bones.

Sidotti’s excavated grave (provided by the Bunkyo City Board of Education)

From the results of analyses and inspections conducted over a period exceeding one year, it was confirmed that the person buried in the center grave was Giovanni Battista Sidotti, who came to Japan as a missionary in the Edo period in 1708 to spread Christianity at a time when the seclusion policy was in effect. In Japan, Sidotti was imprisoned, and he passed away in the Kirishitan residence in 1714. This became an epoch-making discovery for Japan’s modern history and the history of Christianity.

According to the DNA analysis performed by Professor Kenichi Shinoda of the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, the DNA extracted from human bones from the center grave was found to be part of a DNA group belonging to Italian people currently living in the region of Tuscany. Professor Kazuhiro Sakaue deduced from the shape of the bones that the person was a middle-aged (40–60 years old) man with an estimated height of 170–179 centimeters. These results matched literary materials, which indicated that only Sidotti was imprisoned in the Kirishitan residence and buried within the residential grounds. They also showed that Sidotti was 47 when he died and was approximately 175.7–178.8 centimeters tall. Records noting that Sidotti’s grave was close to the back gate of the Kirishitan residence also closely match the location of the excavated grave.

Fragments of pottery created from the late 17th century to the early 18th century were also found from the center grave. This is also consistent with the time of Sidotti’s death in 1714. What’s most interesting is that this grave is an extended burial in which the coffin can hold a large oblong chest of clothes etc., with the body laid down on its side. This signifies that Sidotti was buried in an extended burial and suggests that his body was carefully laid to rest. Strangely enough, when this grave was excavated in 2014, it was exactly 300 years since Sidotti’s death.

Hakuseki Arai questioned Sidotti numerous times at the Kirishitan residence, and the details of these sessions were recorded in Seiyo Kibun written by Hakuseki. Reading this, it appears that Hakuseki and Sidotti both thought highly of each other on their scholarship and personality. In 1714, when Chosuke and Haru, a married couple who had been looking after Sidotti, admitted that they had been baptized by Sidotti, they were imprisoned in a dungeon along with Sidotti. Chosuke passed away on October 7, and Sidotti also passed away that same month on the 21st. Of the three excavated graves, it is likely that the grave on the west side is that of Chosuke and the grave on the east side is that of Haru.

Speaking of ruins that reflect on the Edo Christian culture, there were Christian cemetery ruins at the Yaesu North Exit of Tokyo Station. Ten graves from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 17th century have been excavated here, in which the remains were buried in wooden coffins or without one. Each of these took form of extended burials, and a cross was inscribed in ink on the wooden coffins. Christian holy relics such as medals and rosary beads were also found from the graves.

Missionary Giuseppe Chiara, who came to Japan in 1643 to spread Christianity, was captured and held at the Kirishitan residence. He renounced Christianity after being tortured and took up the name of Sanemon Okamoto. He died in 1685 and was buried in Muryoin after being cremated. Chiara’s grave stone, which still remains today, is in a unique shape.

Historical materials such as these are vital pieces of information that help to clarify the history of Christianity in the Edo period, which has previously been mostly unknown.

Akio Tanigawa
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Akio Tanigawa was born in Tokyo in 1953. He graduated from the School of Education at Waseda University with a major in Geography and History from the Society Course. He completed coursework for the doctoral program in History (Archeology) at Waseda’s Graduate School of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. He served as an assistant at the School of Education, an assistant at the Waseda University Tokorozawa Campus Area Cultural Resource Research Office, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor at the Faculty of Human Sciences prior to his current position. He is a Ph.D. Professor in Human Sciences.

Co-authored Archaeology of Six Coffin Coins (Koshi Shoin, 2009)
Changes in Grave Stones in Recent History and Household Perceptions (Shikan 121 The Historical Society of Waseda University, 1989)
Edo Grave Burial Facilities and Burial Accessories (Graves, Burials and the Edo Period Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2004)