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Kagawa Toyohiko


KAGAWA TOYOHIKO (18881960) was a Japanese Christian novelist, social worker, statesman, and evangelist. He alerted a whole generation of Japanese to the need for a practical expression of Christian ethics and symbolized to non-Japanese the power of faith in action.

Both of Kagawa's parents died before the boy entered school. As a middle-school student he was befriended by American missionaries who converted him to Christianity and treated him like a son. Extremely gifted mentally but weak physically, he spent four months in the hospital and then nine months alone in a hut recuperating shortly after he had entered a theological seminary. His close encounter with death became the basis of his later novel Shisen o koete (translated as both Across the Death Line and Before the Dawn ). For the rest of his life, glaucoma and tuberculosis threatened his many activities.

Back in the seminary, Kagawa concurrently started social work in the Kobe slums. After ordination into the Japanese Presbyterian church and marriage, he traveled to the United States to study at Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. This experience abroad began a pattern that developed into frequent lecture trips to many parts of the world. To the West he brought a message of hope based on his experience; in Japan he threw himself into social reform. He supported his slum work by royalties from his writing. He also organized both urban workers and farmers to improve their livelihoods.

In the late 1920s Kagawa moved to Tokyo, which became his headquarters. There he helped found consumer cooperatives and led pacifist movements. On a 1941 trip to the United States, he vigorously opposed militarism. Back in Japan, police incarcerated him several times; his foreign friends made him suspect. Then, when World War II ended, he was made a member of the cabinet formed to proffer Japan's surrender. In the liberal postwar climate after 1945, Kagawa helped form the Socialist party and worked to return Japan to the world community under the United Nations. In 1955 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Until his death, he served as the pastor of a Tokyo congregation.

Kagawa's thought reflected the accomplishments born of his great energy. Quick to analyze a problem, he would form an organization to remedy it, assign it to trusted associates, and move on, giving his friends the sense that he considered the problem solved. Those who questioned problems more deeply found his expression of faith facile. Nevertheless, they could not disagree with his postmillenarian conviction that work in service of the Social Gospel would help realize his aims. His writings all reflected this combination of faith and the need for hard work. The novel Mugi no hitotsubo (A grain of wheat) showed how an individual could change the moral climate of a whole village through his dedication to reform. Kagawa's nonfiction works included analyses of economics that showed how cooperation serves the interests of the community better than competition.

Kagawa's tireless writing and other activities drew attention to the very practical aspects of the Christian gospel. He used royalties from the sixteen printings of Shisen o koete to help start the Japanese labor movement. He led and assisted groups that worked to alleviate various social wrongs and thereby gained the respect of many individuals who otherwise had little interest in Christianity. He had the highest profile among Japanese Christian leaders. In contrast to most of them, Kagawa also showed respect to foreign missionaries, a number of whom translated his writings for publication in their homelands and arranged speaking tours for him. With more than a dozen titles in English, he remains one of the most translated Japanese writers. During the thirties his message of faithful economic improvement brought hope to North American communities whose self-confidence had been severely eroded by the Great Depression. His name, along with those of other world figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jiang Gaishek, became a household word as an example of the fruits of Christian mission.

Events near the end of World War II tarnished Kagawa's saintly image. He broadcast over the Japanese national radio network, invoking Lincoln's second inaugural address (1865) as he urged American troops to lay down their arms. Other Japanese, themselves concerned with war responsibility, felt that this cooperation with the government, however well intentioned, had compromised Kagawa's pacifism. Yet only four decades later his countrymen began to reassess his true worth. More than any other Japanese Christian of his generation, Kagawa tried to implement the Christian gospel in everyday life and formed a bond with Christians throughout the world.


The works of Kagawa Toyohiko are collected in Kagawa Toyohiko zenshu, 24 vols. (Tokyo, 19621964), which forms the basis for all further studies. Kagawa Toyohiko den (Tokyo, 1959), by Haruichi Yokoyama, is considered the standard biography. Charley May Simon's A Seed Shall Serve: The Story of Toyohiko Kagawa, Spiritual Leader of Modern Japan (New York, 1958) presents a summary Western view of the man and his work. George Bikle, Jr.'s The New Jerusalem: Aspects of Utopianism in the Thought of Kagawa Toyohiko (Tucson, 1976) deals with Kagawa's ideas. Yuzo Ota's "Kagawa Toyohiko: A Pacifist?" in Pacifism in Japan: The Christian and Socialist Tradition, edited by Nobuya Bamba and me (Kyoto, 1978), discusses the quite differing attitudes in Japan and abroad toward Kagawa's work.

John F. Howes (1987)

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