Kagawa – the forgotten Christian who reshaped 20th C Japanese society


The forgotten Christian who reshaped 20thC Japanese society
Toyohiko Kagawa was an outstanding Japanese Christian who had a great influence on twentieth century Japan but is now largely forgotten both in his native land and in the West.
He was a social activist on behalf of the poor and the oppressed working class of 1920’s Japan as it began to industrialise. An author and poet, by 1933 he was the most popular author in Japan and his book “A grain of wheat” went through 150 editions. He was very involved in the development of the first trade unions in Japan and also in advocating for a national health scheme, one of the earliest in the world.
He is no longer remembered in Japan partly because he strongly opposed Japans military aggression in the Second World War and attempted to convince the emperor and government to turn away from the aggressive stance of the senior military leaders. After their defeat he campaigned for Japan to formally apologise. This was not received well in Japan.
His story and conversion to Christianity and how his faith shaped his life and service to the poor and Japanese society is a fascinating one.
Christianity first came to Japan with the Portuguese traders in the 16th C., the first missionaries were Jesuits. In the late 16th and early 17th C. converts and missionaries were fiercely persecuted, many were actually put to death by crucifixion and the infant church pushed underground. In 1859 the Protestant missionaries arrived but it was not until 1871 that Japan officially recognised the Christians right to legal recognition. But even then a Japanese person who converted was often ejected from their family. Today the population of Japan is 126 million but only 1% is Christian, in spite of this several Japanese Prime ministers have been Christians.
At the beginning of the 20th C. in Japan God raised up this extraordinary man – Toyohiko Kagawa. His father was a senior official in the Japanese government and a member of the Japanese aristocracy. But he was a philanderer and Kagawa was the result of a relationship with a prostitute. Both his parents died when he was young and he was taken into the care of a wealthy uncle who owned an historic rural estate where he was brought up. The beauty of the countryside made a lasting impression on him; it gave him a love of nature and motivated his later environmental concerns. His uncle’s family history went back to the ancient Samurai nobility. But his time in his uncle’s home was difficult as his paternal grandmother rejected him because of his birth mother.
Eventually he was sent off to a Presbyterian missionary secondary school. High placed Japanese families at this time were eager for their children to learn English. There he was in effect adopted by two missionaries who took him into their home and loved and cared for him. This had a profound effect on the development of his faith in Christ. He had been given a New Testament earlier by an American missionary to whom he had been sent to learn English and was deeply impressed with Jesus. But his faith now flowered and he felt called to Christian ministry. He was a bright student but instead of going to university as his uncle expected he decided to attend the Presbyterian theological College at Kobe. His uncle could not accept this decision; he rejected him and cut off all ties.
While studying theology he became involved in ministry to the poor in the Kobe slums. He eventually went and lived there in a tiny hut identifying completely with the poor. There he started “The Jesus Band of Kobe” for young Christians to work in the slums. At this time there were approximately 10,000 people living in the Kobe slums. This is in the 1920’s at a time when Japan had no social welfare of any kind and farm and factory workers lived and worked in the most appalling conditions. The industrial revolution did not hit Japan till the end of the 19th C and its worst effects were just beginning to impact Japanese society in the early 20th C. There was no organised labour movement and no trade unions and so no one to stand up for the rights of workers and the poor.
Kagawa felt a burning call from God to work for and among these people. He lived in the slums for 15 years. His work was amazingly holistic; he worked as a passionate evangelist, social reformer, labour activist and union organiser. He developed churches, schools, hospitals and co-operatives among factory workers and farmers. The Kobe/Nada Co- operative which he helped start is still in existence and is the largest single Co-op in the world with four million members.
In the 1920’s he was frequently arrested for his involvement with labour activism which was actively discouraged by Japanese political leaders at the time. He became a key figure in the development of the first Japanese Unions and in 1928 organised the “Japanese Federation of Labour.” As a result of his tireless work he became known as the champion of the poor.
But he was not only an organiser he also researched and wrote on the causes of poverty. He became a prolific author and his writing both educated and touched the conscience of the Japanese public. He was also a celebrated poet and his book “A grain of Wheat’ which was published in 1933 was at one stage the most widely read book in Japan. His books sold in their thousands and he became Japans most popular author. He was also an early environmentalist and initiated a very effective tree planting program in Japans rural areas.
In 1923 Tokyo experienced what they still call ‘the great earthquake’ which devastated parts of the city particularly areas where the poor lived. Kagawa was now so respected he was asked by the city officials to take charge of its relief work and later was put in charge of the city’s social services.
His other extraordinary achievement was that he became the first person to advocate for a national health care system for the whole country which was eventually achieved, one of the first in the world.
But as mentioned earlier he was not only a social reformer he was also a passionate evangelist. For eight years from 1926- 1934 he conducted a nationwide evangelistic campaign called the “kingdom of God Movement” speaking to large crowds.
He had studied at Princeton in the US from 1914-1916 and was well known there. Before the outbreak of the Second World War he returned briefly to the US in an attempt to prevent the outbreak of war. As a pacifist he was deeply opposed to Japans militarisation and Imperial plans. He was arrested in Japan in 1940 for making a public apology to China for Japans brutal occupation of that country, an occupation whose memory lingers on with bitterness in China today.
After Japan’s defeat and occupation by the US he became an adviser to the Post War Transition Government. He was a strong advocate for Article 9 in the post war Japanese Constitution that renounces war as a means to settle international disputes. Japan is the only country with such a clause, although it is now a matter of some dispute as Japan re-arms today. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947 and 1948 the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1955. At his death in 1960 he was awarded Japans second highest award the Order of the Sacred Treasure but his call for a national act of repentance after the war was not received well by the Japanese and was a significant factor in his loss of popularity and marginalisation. But his social reforms live on and still bear fruit in Japan.
There is an interesting connection with Australia and Victoria. The late Fletcher Jones a Christian business man who built the very successful “Fletcher Jones” clothing company was very influenced by Kagawa’s ideas and brought him to Victoria to speak in 1935 at Warnambool where Fletcher had his business. Fletcher also went to Japan in 1936 to study the co-operatives started by Kagawa and this shaped his approach to staff involvement and financial sharing in the company which was very successful and an outstanding model of Christian principles applied to business and labour co-operation.
Kagawa, an outstanding example of Christian servanthood was motivated to achieve these things because he believed that, as he expressed it in one of his poems,
God who dwells in my hand
Knows this secret plan
Of the things he will do for the world
Using my hand!
(From the poem “Discovery”)

  • Michael

    Small correction: Fletcher Jones references should be 1935 and 1936.