April 22 – Toyohiko Kagawa

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Toyohiko Kagawa, renewer of society

Kagawa – evangelist, social reformer, author and mystic

Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) lived in a turbulent period of Japanese history – the time of rising militarism and deepening xenophobia.

Born to a mistress of an unsuccessful politician businessman and orphaned at four, he learnt resilience through a difficult childhood. He was brought up by the austere and resentful widow of his father in his ancestral village in Shikoku.

At sixteen he became a pacifist, influenced by Tolstoy’s writings; this coincided with Japan’s war against Russia. Toyohiko was beaten as a traitor by his fellow students and teachers alike. Christianity too was regarded with suspicion; he was disowned by his remaining family when baptized in the same year.

Kagawa became an evangelist, preaching on street corners. He focused on those forgotten by society and neglected by the churches – the urban poor. At twenty-one, at death’s door with tuberculosis, he had a mystical experience of healing, of “being enveloped by bright light”. This was a formative experience and his life took on a great sense of urgency.

He left his seminary for the Shinkawa slums in Kobe, living there for the next 14 years surrounded by disease, vermin, and overwhelming stench, harassed day and night by drunks and criminals demanding money. He was threatened with the sword and beaten, yet persisted with his pacifist stance, kneeling before his abusers in the posture of prayer – not a ministry for the faint hearted.

Kagawa was impatient with those who saw the faith as a mere collection of correct doctrines: the Kingdom of God is to be lived in every dimension of life. He became an entrepreneur for the poor, starting clinics, low-cost food outlets and cooperative factories in the slums. He organised trade unions, and led strikes in the Mitsubishi and Kawasaki Shipyards in 1921. He preached “Brotherhood Economics”, peaceful cooperation between capital and labour, based on the Cross of Christ. He later organised unions for share farmers and farm workers, as well as consumer cooperatives throughout Japan.

He was the author of 150 books, often drafted on toilet paper; in a five-year period from 1929 he held 1,859 evangelistic meetings. He made twelve overseas speaking tours, to Australia, the USA, Canada, Europe, China, India and the Philippines. He studied for two years at Princeton University, obtaining Master’s degrees in theology and Experimental Psychology.

Kagawa was jailed several times for his role in the union movement, yet during the Depression the Mayor of Tokyo invited him to head the city’s Social Welfare Bureau. He was jailed in 1940 for his apology to China for Japan’s attack, and in mid- 1941 led an unsuccessful peace mission to the USA.

During his Australian tour (1935), Fletcher Jones (an iconic Australian clothing brand) invited Kagawa to address workers at his Warrnambool factory.  Jones, a Methodist, believed that “spiritual growth was achieved through productive and satisfying work, and the object of business should be social advancement rather than individual profit”. He visited Kagawa’s cooperatives the following year and proceeded to turn his business into a cooperative. By the 1970s, over 70% of shares were owned by the staff.

Kagawa remains a transnational inspiration for all who seek to live the Kingdom on earth.

by Rev Atsushi Shibouka