Toyohiko Kagawa: Do You Know the St. Francis of Japan? [Part One]


Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese evangelist, church reformer, labor leader, socialist economist, and faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, was celebrated in his day as “the Japanese Gandhi,” “the Japanese Albert Schweitzer,” the “St. Francis of Japan,” and “Christ’s Samurai.”[1] His work for social justice should be considered on equal footing with that of revered saints like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. Yet, he is mostly unknown in the Western world. His life’s work is just as relevant in the world today as it was during his lifetime. His story deserves to be heard. In order to tell this story, this paper will use the three themes of the modern missionary movement developed by Paul Hiebert – evangelism, church, and kingdom[2] – to present a brief biographical sketch. In its second section, this paper will engage Kagawa in a “celestial coffeehouse conversation” organized around the same three missionary themes.

A Brief Biography of Toyohiko Kagawa

Toyohiko Kagawa was born on July 10, 1888, in Kobe, Japan, to a wealthy family. His circumstances changed drastically when he moved in with his stepmother after the death of both his parents when he was only four years old. He moved again at age 15, this time to an uncle, when his family went bankrupt. His uncle financed his education and encouraged him to learn English from two American Presbyterian missionaries. Along with learning English, he met Jesus Christ in the love and hospitality of these missionaries. He was kicked out of his uncle’s house upon his baptism into the Christian faith and was taken in by the Presbyterian missionaries, Drs. Logan and Myers, who would remain his lifelong supporters.

From a young age, Kagawa was known to be very intelligent. He enrolled in Meiji Gakuin College in Tokyo in 1905, with help from his Presbyterian community, and studied there for two years before transferring to Kobe Theological Seminary in 1907. After five years, he graduated in 1912 and was married to Haru Shiba the next year. Kagawa made his first journey to the US to attend Princeton Theological Seminary in 1914, where he earned his final degree, a Bachelor’s of Divinity, after three years of study. At every place he studied, Kagawa amazed his professors and peers with the breadth of his knowledge. He read voraciously: philosophy, literature, economics, biology, and poetry.

Kagawa became an international celebrity through his many international lecture tours. He was introduced to the Western world during his first tour through the US and Europe in 1924 and 1925. He had achieved celebrity status by the time of second US tour in 1936 through the propagation of his books and news of his extensive work in the Japanese labor and cooperative movements. He crisscrossed the nation on this six-month tour as a highly sought after lecturer. His most famous stop was in Rochester, NY, where he delivered the Rauschenbusch Lectures. These lectures were later compiled into a book entitled Brotherhood Economics that set forth his ideas on cooperative economic systems.

Kagawa kept a very busy schedule throughout his life and rarely had time to help raise his three children. He remained happily married to his wife, who often served as an administrator for his many projects and ventures. Their struggles with a chronic eye disease that they had contracted while living in the Kobe slums served as compelling evidence of their mutual commitment to lifelong service among the poor. After a long and illustrious life, Toyohiko Kagawa died at his home in Tokyo on April 25, 1960, at the age of 72.

The theme of evangelism was prominent throughout Kagawa’s life. He was inspired to begin his work as an evangelist after seeing the example of poor pastor faithfully serving among the poor. In the summer between his studies at Meiji College and Kobe Seminary, Kagawa preached in the slums for forty days, but was hospitalized when he collapsed immediately after completing his final sermon. After a powerful, mystical experience of God on his deathbed, he miraculous recovered and returned to street preaching. On Christmas Day 1909, he packed up his meager belongings and moved out of Kobe Seminary and into a tiny apartment in Kobe’s Shinkawa slums. While he continued his theological education, he preached to his poor neighbors in both the morning and evening. He eventually left the slums when his first child was born in 1922, but his evangelism continued. He organized international support for a Kingdom of God movement in Japan with a goal of reaching one million souls for Christ. The movement was planned to last three years, but was suspended in the wake of relatively poor results at the end of its second year. This experience did not keep Kagawa from mounting yet another national evangelistic campaign in 1946 in the midst of Japan’s World War II reconstruction efforts. Kagawa showed his commitment to evangelism right up until his death as he ignored the advice of friends and doctors in order to continue his preaching tours.

While he consistently criticized the Japanese church establishment, Kagawa nevertheless played a vital role in life of the church. He was ordained a minister in the Japanese Presbyterian Church, but never served as a church employee. He also maintained close ties with Drs. Logan and Myers, who helped him connect with supporters in the United States. Instead of becoming involved as a leader in the church establishment, he created a new order in 1921 called the Society of the Friends of Jesus. The Friends’ purpose was to catalyze an ecumenical reform movement within the church. This group was based on Catholic and Buddhist orders, which Kagawa greatly admired. They were active in social improvement projects throughout Japan and led the church toward more sustained ministry on behalf of the poor. Kagawa was also involved in several international church and mission conferences in the second half of his life: the World Missionary Council held in Madras, India, in 1938, the China National Christian Council in 1944, the World Church Conference held in Evanston, IL, in 1954, and the Christian International Conference for World Peace in 1958.

While he was a committed evangelist, as well as a church reformer, Kagawa is best known for his kingdom work. This began with individual acts of charity upon moving into the Shinkawa slums. In addition to preaching, he cared for three other men in his tiny shack, taught reading classes, opened a cooperative restaurant to fight malnutrition, built a school and a clinic, and made nightly rounds as a sort of psychiatric social worker. In the slums, the people honored him with the title of sensei Kagawa. However, he often expressed frustration at the futility and negligible impacts of his work. When he left the slums to attend Princeton, he was simultaneously convinced of the global evils of capitalism and the necessity of labor unions to bring about transformation at a societal level.

Upon returning from Princeton in 1917, he became heavily involved in the Japanese labor movement and soon rose as an intellectual leader. He also continued to experiment in cooperative economics by organizing the Kobe Consumers Cooperative. In 1921, he led a massive strike at the Kobe shipyards that ended in failure after several weeks of stalemate. After this incident, his opponents, mainly Communists, became increasingly frustrated with his gradual, non-violent, and constitutional approach to social change. As their voices grew more prominent within the unions, Kagawa quickly disassociated himself from the urban labor movement and after a short break of two weeks had organized his next project: the Japan Farmers Union. Poor, rural tenant farmers often faced more extreme poverty than the urban laborers and Kagawa eventually wanted to form a rural-urban coalition of poor people to demand economic, labor, and land reforms. Kagawa’s work with the farmers was interrupted in 1923 when he was called by the government to lead reconstruction efforts in Tokyo after a devastating earthquake.

After successfully fulfilling his commitments in Tokyo, he set out building “Gospel Schools” in rural provinces with the help of the Friends of Jesus order. In 1928, he organized an anti-war league to oppose the escalation of Japan’s militarism. He was jailed several times for voicing his anti-war stances leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He made desperate attempts, even communicating with President Roosevelt, to stop the war in the Pacific, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

When the war was over, Kagawa seemed to bounce back on to the national scene with new life. He became very involved in Japan’s new democratic government and served as the National Commissioner of Prison Affairs and the National Social Welfare Commissioner. Later in life, he was an extremely vocal supporter of the international cooperation movement. He was elected as president of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rdAll-Asian Congresses for World Federation. His efforts to establish world peace through international cooperation were recognized by his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954.

1Robert Schildgen, Toyohiko Kagawa: Apostle of Love and Social Justice, (Berkeley, CA: Centenary Books, 1988), 2.

2Paul S. Hiebert, “Evangelism, Church, and Kingdom,” in Good News of the Kingdom, ed. Charles van Engen, et al., (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 153.


3 comments on “Toyohiko Kagawa: Do You Know the St. Francis of Japan? [Part One]

  1. […] you know the St. Francis of Japan? [Part Two] May9 by joe d Have you read Part One yet? This will make a whole lot more sense if you read that […]

  2. Sue Anna Tucker says:

    He came to preach at a Methodist Youth Camp near Seattle, Washington, when my Dad was 17, just before.WWII, 1941. His testimony introduced my Dad to a very different Jesus then his nominal faith knew. So my Dad, John M. Stanley, always testifies that he was brought to Christ by a Japanese missionary from Japan and his faith is all about Jesus who loves us and challenges us to make a positive difference in this world. My dad later became a minister and a leader in a branch of The Church of the East which reached all the way to Japan. He has been involved in many ministries and organizations such as the World Fellowship of Reconciliation.

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