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The life of Father Sidotti

Text by Tomoko Furui (Excerpt from "The Last Missionary Sidotti")

Palermo, Sicily

 Giovanni Battista Sidotti, an Italian missionary, was born in 1668 to the second son of a noble family in Palermo, the core city of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea off southern Italy. Palermo was a cosmopolitan city with a unique climate that was a mixture of Latin, Greek, and Arab cultures. Sidotti studied at the seminary attached to the Palermo Cathedral until he was 22 years old, and after graduating he crossed the sea and aimed for the “Eternal City of Rome”.

Palermo Cathedral
Seminary where Sidotti attended
Vatican, Rome

 At the Vatican, he learned not only theology but also mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, physics, and ethics, which were thought at the highest European standards at the time, and he was appointed a judicial advisor at a young age and promised to have a brilliant future as a priest. However, when he turned 32, he suddenly asked the Pope for missionary work in Japan, which was in isolation. After studying Japanese language and culture at the Pontifical Urbaniana University under the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fidei for three years, he was given a mission to go to Japan on the condition that "if Japan allows missionary work."

Roman Curia (Vatican)
Pontifical Urbaniana University, an educational institution directly under the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide
To the Far East

 In early July 1703, the 35-year-old Sidotti sailed from Genova through the Strait of Gibraltar, around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, past India to Manila. It was a long and grueling journey lasting over a year, full of dangers such as rainstorms, lack of food and drinking water due to extreme heat, and epidemics such as malaria and cholera.

Time in Manila

 Arriving in Manila on July 21, 1704, Sidotti worked vigorously to care for the sick and establish a seminary for the locals. On the other hand, he went to the Japanese town where the descendants of Ukon Takayama and Joan Naito, who were expelled from Japan by the Christian banishing edict, lived. He purchased supplies necessary for the trip and made steady preparations for the trip to Japan. Four years later, the year after the long-awaited seminary was completed, the people of Manila, moved by Sidotti's strong will, built a new sailing ship and saw him off. Japan was in a state of national isolation as usual, and without the Pope's permission, he was sailing alone at the risk of his life.

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Manila's "St. Clemente Seminary," which Sidotti devoted his energy to constructing
(provided by the current St. Carlos Seminary)
Landing on Yakushima

 The ship carrying Sidotti left the port of Manila and then headed north-northeast along the islands leading to the Sakishima Islands, the Ryukyu Islands, the Amami Islands, and the Tokara Islands. After 50 days of sailing, despite being tossed about by strong winds and high waves, the ship finally arrived at the south coast of the island, which was covered with high mountains. After writing his last letter to the Vatican, Sidotti disguised himself as a samurai and boarded a small boat bound for a rocky cove with nothing but a cotton bag containing Mass tools and a painting of the Virgin Mary. It was midnight on October 11, 1708.

Sailing ship of the same era as the "Holy Trinity" carrying Sidotti
Estimated sea route between Manila and Yakushima
Tobei of Koidomari Village

 The next morning, Tobei from Koidomari village came to cut firewood as usual, and suddenly encountered a strange-looking man in the pine forest. Although he was dressed in a samurai outfit with a Japanese sword, "his face and his words are not from this country." Feeling sorry for him, Tobei called Gojiemon and Kiemon of Hirauchi Village, took the man home, and gave him food and a place to sleep. The man tried to give him a gold nugget as a reward, but no one would accept it. Sidotti, who stayed in Koidomari village for more than 10 days, is thought to have shared intimate moments with the villagers.

Sidotti and Tobei, Encounter
(Mauro Mollaretti, oil painting, owned by Yakushima Sidotti Memorial Church)
Nagasaki Magistrate's Office

 Before long, Sidotti was taken to the Nagasaki magistrate's office via Satsuma and interrogated. As it turned out that he was a Bateren (a foreign missionary) whose Christianity was prohibited, it seemed appropriate to execute him. However, since Tsunayoshi, the 5th shogun at that time, suddenly died of measles, he was sent to Edo at the request of Hakuseki Arai, who was a close aide to the next shogun, Ienobu. Sidotti, whose life was saved in a very close call, was carried in a small basket used to carry sinners. It is said that he could not even stand when he arrived at the Edo Christian Mansion.

The prisoner's palanquin was used to carry Sidotti to Edo.
An image of the Christian Mansion in Sidotti's time
("Martyr Sidotti" by Don Bosco Publisher)
Interrogation of Hakuseki Arai

 Arai Hakuseki interrogated Sidotti four times from December 22, 1709 to January 3, 1710 in the Christian Mansion. Hakuseki who was Edo's foremost intellectual, was interested in the Western world. The two, facing each other across a world map, communicated with each other like old acquaintances, to the extent that Hakuseki commented, "It was like lighting up a mirror in response to the sound." Hakuseki's view of the world expanded greatly. He came to the epoch-making conclusion that “Christianity is just one religion, and there is no intention of conspiracy,'' overturning the national isolation policy of the time. But the shogunate chose to imprison Sidotti for life.

Portrait of Arai Hakuseki

Joan Blaeu's "New World Map" used during the Sidotti interrogation

(Tokyo National Museum collection)

Last Moments at the Christian Mansion

 In confinement Sidotti was treated generously and even allowed to carry the prayer books except freedom. After a while Hakuseki Arai disappeared from the center of politics as an adviser to the shogun. One day, it was discovered that an elderly couple, Chosuke and Haru, who had been taking care of Sidotti, had been baptized. After witnessing the death of the elderly couple, Sidotti passed away from starvation in the middle of the night on October 21, 1714. Six years after landing on Yakushima, he was young at the age of 47. The three bodies were buried near the back gate of the mansion.

 Upon learning of Sidotti's death, Hakuseki wrote "Seiyo Kibun" and "Sairan Igen", leaving proof that Sidotti ‘s information had a great impact on the subsequent foreign policy of the shogunate.


"Seiyo Kibun" by Hakuseki Arai, published in 1882

(Owned by Utaro Noda Literature Museum)

"Sairan Igen" by Hakuseki Arai, published in 1881 (National Diet Library Digital Collection)
And 300 years later

 In the summer of 2014, exactly 300 years after Sidotti's burial, the remains of three bodies were excavated from a section of the back gate ruins of the Christian Mansion in Koishikawa, Tokyo, which is now a residential area. As a result of detailed scientific investigation such as DNA analysis, it was proved that it was Sidotti, Chosuke, and Haru, and it became a big news that surprised the world.

 What does the story of Sidotti, who has reappeared in the world after a long time of three centuries, tell us today?

Excavation of Sidotti's remains (Bunkyo Ward Board of Education)
Kyodo News April 5, 2016
Reconstruction of Sidotti's face made from the remains (National Museum of Nature and Science)
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