Kitagawa, Joseph M.

views updated


KITAGAWA, JOSEPH M. (19151992) was a historian of religions, humanist, Asianist, priest, theologian, educator, and administrator. The career of Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa, who served as an editor of the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), spanned a number of continents, traditions, disciplines, and roles.

Early Years

Born to Japanese Christian parents in Osaka, his father an Episcopal priest, from his youth Kitagawa lived within the minority Christian tradition in Japan, but was attuned to the variety and depth of Asian thought and belief. Reflecting on his life, Kitagawa wrote that:

I have always been awed, fascinated and inspired by the lives of two men, Confucius and the Apostle Paul.[P]ersons like myself, born and raised in the Far East, lived in the shadow of the towering figure of Confucius. We were inspired by his view of common human nature, his insistence on the educability of all men and women, and his vision of ethical universalism based on the cultivation of human goodness. His vocation was the training of scholars (Ju ), who would influence the administrative policies of the nation. Although he himself failed miserably during his lifetime to persuade the rulers to adopt his policies, Confucius left a high standard for his disciples to follow.An educated person had a vocation to master the saving knowledge of the sacred past, to transmit it to the present generation, and to interpret contemporary experience in the light of accumulated wisdom.As a child of a parsonage, I have been exposed from my earliest days to the name of another important figure, namely the Apostle Paul.I have come to appreciate over the years the very human qualities of the Apostle Paul. Also his piercing insight into human nature and its predicament resonates in many of usPaulis a man of unusual talents coupled with human weaknesses, completely dedicated to his vocation of spreading the gospel.For this vocation he joyfully endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, and hunger. Significantly, it was his spiritual maturity which brought him to a profound understanding of the meaning of love as the mystery of God.The lives of these two personsremain constant reminders to me that our worth must be measured not primarily by our accomplishments, not even by scholarly accomplishments, but by the quality of vocation we find in life. (Kitagawa, 1979, pp. 1820)

Kitagawa's own experiences and studies led him to a life-long commitment of mediating between and among contrasting viewpoints. He graduated from Rikkyo University, affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and like his brother followed their father in becoming an Episcopal priest. Coming to the United States to continue his theological studies just before World War II, he was caught in the internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans for the duration of the war. He commented later that, while ministering to the religious needs of fellow internees, these relocation camps were his real introduction to American society. He embraced America's democratic ideals, and yet noted, with sadness, "America's failure to fulfill her creed of democratic equality" (Kitagawa, 1992, p. 128), not only in his own internment experiences, but domestically on racial issues and internationally on refugee matters. Not until after the war, in October 1945, could he resume his studies, first taking a bachelor of divinity degree at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, in 1947. During this time he also organized an Episcopal mission to Chicago's Japanese population; this endeavor eventually became the Asian ministry of the diocese. He studied for his doctorate under Joachim Wach at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, completing his dissertation on "Kobo-daishi and Shingon Buddhism" in 1951.

Academic Career

Kitagawa joined the faculty of his alma mater in 1951 and served in a number of capacities, first assisting his mentor Joachim Wach in cultivating the postwar interest in the study of religion. Their efforts to combine the earlier American tradition of comparative religion with the European notion of Religionswissenschaft were cut short by Wach's premature death in 1955. Kitagawa was instrumental in securing the appointment of Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago; together with Charles H. Long, and later other scholars, they established the "history of religions" approach, as epitomized in the journal they founded, History of Religions: An International Journal for Comparative Studies (1961). While promoting the study of religion on the graduate level, Kitagawa helped educate a large group of historians of religion, and trained a number of doctoral students in the area of Japanese religion, who helped develop the field of "Japanese religion" within North America. He was an indefatigable advocate of comparative religion as a component of undergraduate education, and of the role of trained historians of religions to teach such courses; he foresaw the role of state institutions as playing a prominent function in the teaching about religion, once undertaken only in private institutions. Kitagawa's students, both those in his special area of Japanese religion, and in other fields of the history of religions, found academic positions throughout the world, especially in the United States and Japan. He is remembered by his colleagues and students as impeccable in dress and manners, a consummate diplomat, and an able and tireless administrator.

Kitagawa interrupted his own academic work to serve for two terms from 1970 to 1980 as dean of the Divinity School. As dean he looked back to the vision of William Rainey Harper (the academic founder of the University of Chicago, a scholar of biblical and Middle Eastern studies who also insisted on the scientific study of religion), finding in him a role model for mediating both between academic and professional roles and among various fields. Following Harper's lead, Kitagawa promoted a threefold graduate and professional mission for the Divinity School: balancing theological inquiry, the humanistic (or scientific) study of religion, and the development of professional religious leadership. Kitagawa's work as dean has been summed up by his close colleague, Martin Marty: "Kitagawa regularly remarked on the ways the Harper model could be used to criticize excesses in today's world. Thus he was not impressed by neo-positivist, 'more secular than thou' scholars of religion who pretended that believing communities did not exist, or disdained them. He was equally unimpressed by professional ministerial or theological schools which underestimated the need for critical scholarly inquiry" (Marty, 1985, p. 13).

Kitagawa was furthering these goals when he was instrumental in establishing the Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion (now the Martin Marty Center) at the University of Chicago. In the United States he was a founding member and mainstay of the American Society for the Study of Religion, and he was prominent in his support of the International Association for the History of Religions. Kitagawa's service to the field was international, sitting on the board of directors for both the International Institute for the Study of Religion (Tokyo) and the Fund for Theological Education; he was editorial advisor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and on the board of editors for Numen. He lectured widely throughout the world, and delivered a number of major lectures, including the Joachim Wach Memorial Lecture at the University of Marburg, the Charles Wesley Brashares Lectures on the History of Religions at Northwestern University, the Charles Strong Memorial Lecture in Comparative Religions at Australian universities, the Rockwell Lecture Series at Rice University, and Lectures on the History of Religions (sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies). For his scholarship he received a number of honorary degrees.

Scholarly Contribution

Several autobiographical statements can serve to characterize Kitagawa's work. "Having a father who was a Confucian-turned-Christian minister and growing up in the Yamato area, the oldest district of Japan, with the children of Buddhist and Shinto clerics as my playmates, made me realize the importance of religion early in life" (Kitagawa, 1987, p. ix). In contrast to some Japanese scholars who began with the study of religion and ended up in the pursuit of theology, Kitagawa notes: "I found that my own academic pilgrimage moved in the opposite direction: from theology to the philosophy of religion to Religionswissenschaft (known as the history of religions, or Shūkyō-gaku )" (1987, p. ix). Grounded in his own experience as a Japanese Christian, Kitagawa reached out to Asians to broaden their perspective of Christianity, at the same time chiding Westerners for their Eurocentric conception of Christianity. Having received his earliest academic training in Japan, and then undergoing a harsh introduction to American democracy through internment, he completed his graduate work in an American setting under the European influence of Wach, and later refined his understanding of religion in collaboration with his colleague Eliade; he parlayed Wach's notion of Verstehen (understanding) and Religionswissenschaft into the more recent category of history of religions. Like Eliade, Kitagawa deplored the fact that we do not have a more precise term than religion, but insisted that "the point of departure of Religionswissenschaft is the historically given religions" (Eliade and Kitagawa, 1959, p. 21). He acknowledged in a critique of the history of religions approach that "there are no purely religious phenomena," but agreed with Eliade that "the meaning of a religious phenomenon can be understood only if it is studied as something religious," viewing it religio-scientifically or religio-historically (Eliade and Kitagawa, 1959, p. 21).

See Also

Japanese Religions, overview article.


From early in his career Kitagawa wrote on a wide range of issues for a general audience in various publications, voicing his concerns about social and political issues, such as the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans and the treatment of refugees, and speaking to theological issues (especially the situation of Asian churches and the character of missionary activity). The best source for such materials is in the Festschrift edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Theodore M. Ludwig, Transitions and Transformations in the History of Religions: Essays in Honor of Joseph M. Kitagawa (Leiden, 1980); the bibliography, pp. 39, includes a comprehensive listing of both books and articles to 1980. Reynolds and Ludwig have also provided (pp. 1121) an overview of Kitagawa's methodology. Some of his publications undertook the editing of posthumous works of his mentor, Joachim Wach: The Comparative Study of Religions (New York, 1958); Understanding and Believing: Essays (New York, 1968); and Essays in the History of Religions (New York, 1988). He also authored Gibt es ein Verstehen fremder Religionen?: Mit einer Biographie Joachim Wachs und einer vollst(ndigen Bibliographie seiner Werke (Leiden, 1963). Kitagawa was generous in editing the work of others, such as (with Alan L. Miller) Ichiro Hori, Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change (Chicago, 1968); he co-edited (with Charles H. Long) Myths and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade (Chicago, 1969); he also co-edited a number of volumes in Japanese, and some of his articles and books were translated into Japanese.

Kitagawa's own contribution to the field is found in articles such as "The History of Religions in America," in The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, ed. Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago, 1959), reprinted in The History of Religions: Understanding Human Experience (Atlanta, 1987), a collection of his key articles on the history of religions and Religionswissenschaft. Kitagawa is best known for his work in Japanese religion. His doctoral dissertation, "Kobo-daishi and Shingon Buddhism" (Chicago, 1951), although not published, has been used widely (in photoduplicated copies in university libraries). His major work is Religion in Japanese History (New York, 1966), an overview still utilized as a textbook; his key articles are collected in On Understanding Japanese Religion (Princeton, N.J., 1987). While continuing his scholarly work, he remained in touch with his concern for social issues, editing The American Refugee Policy: Ethical and Religious Reflections (Minneapolis, 1984). At the end of his career Kitagawa turned to broader themes: the theological work The Christian Tradition: Beyond its European Captivity (Philadelphia, 1992), and the synthetic works The Quest for Human Unity: A Religious History (Minneapolis, 1990) and Spiritual Liberation and Human Freedom in Contemporary Asia (New York, 1990). He wrote a brief autobiographical account, "Vocation and Maturity" (pp. 1820), in Criterion: A Publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School 18, no. 2 (1979). Appreciations of Kitagawa's contributions as a scholar, educator, and administrator are included in Criterion 24, no. 3 (1985), which includes Robert Wood Lynn, "The Harper Legacy: An Appreciation of Joseph M. Kitagawa"(pp. 48); Martin E. Marty, "Joseph M. Kitagawa, the Harper Tradition, and this Divinity School" (pp. 913); and D. Gale Johnson, "Comments on Joseph Kitagawa's Day" (pp. 1416). A memorial tribute in Criterion 32, no. 1 (1993) is Nancy Auer Falk and H. Byron Earhart, "Perfect in Dress and Address: Remembering Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa, 19151992" (pp. 1016).

H. Byron Earhart (2005)