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

Have you read Part One yet? This will make a whole lot more sense if you read that first 🙂

A Celestial Coffeehouse Conversation

Moderator: Mr. Kagawa, before we begin our discussion, I want to thank you for taking the time to make this brief stop on your very busy lecturing tour. It is quite an honor to meet you. I am very much looking forward to our conversation today.

Mr. Kagawa: Well, you are most welcome. I am never too busy to spare a few moments for conversation with a fellow brother in Christ. This will be a nice break from the book I’m trying to complete while on tour in your magnificent country. Where should we begin?

            Moderator: Let’s begin with a brief introduction of the three themes I would like us to discuss: evangelism, church, and kingdom. In an article by Paul Hiebert, a seminary professor who served as a missionary to India, these are described as the core themes of the modern missionary movement that defines both the missionary’s purpose and work.[1] Hiebert explains how missionaries have tended to focus on one of these themes at the expense of the others and then offers a way to hold all of them together.

With that said, we can begin with a question on evangelism. Hiebert says that the “Kingdom motivates us to do evangelism, because we want to see God’s honor and rule extended to all people. Evangelism is the central task of the church on earth, because it is the one function the church can do better here than in heaven.”[2] How would you respond to this statement? Would you describe evangelism as the “central task of the church on earth”?

Mr. Kagawa: First, I would certainly agree with Hiebert’s premise. After many years of organizing unions to fight for the rights and dignity of both the industrial workers in our cities and the tenant farmers spread across our countryside, I came to realize that our efforts to transform society could not succeed with the number of Christians on our side. We were simply too outnumbered. In nearly every union I organized, we were constantly struggling against Communists who demanded a violent class revolution. I wanted no part in violence. I was confident we could push the changes we desired through the parliamentary system with consistent and organized peaceful protest. But without knowing the love of Christ, why would the people follow my non-violent way? Why not follow the violence of the Communists with their promises of change overnight? The non-violent way requires patience and endurance – the kind that grows out of a deep love for others, which is nourished by the very love of God. So, yes, I agree that the kingdom should indeed motivate us to do evangelism so that more and more will come under the reign of God’s love. In fact, I was very ambitious in my evangelism. My goal for the Kingdom of God movement in Japan was to win one million souls for Christ! We spent three years touring the country and thousands came to know Him.

I should also mention an experience I had in the slums that was foundational to this realization about the need for widespread evangelism. Living in the slums was, of course, a very difficult task because the people there are riddled with the various diseases of poverty – some physical, and others mental. After returning to the slums upon the completion of my degree at Princeton, I had the idea to start a cooperative factory right there in their midst. I was tired of seeing laborers exploited and wanted to show Japan, and the world, that workers are better off when they are in control.  With that goal in mind, I opened a toothbrush factory. It went ok at first but it was short-lived. The factory struggled because its workers struggled; many suffered from illnesses, alcoholism, and fatigue. A cooperative factory depends on the self-management and self-discipline of its workers and many of these workers were simply not capable of taking on this responsibility. Some have called me naïve for thinking that I could turn slum dwellers into productive individuals and I think that they are mostly correct in that judgment. [3] This experience taught me that personal transformation through salvation in Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for sustainable cooperative practices. While the conversion of all the workers would probably not have guaranteed the success of the factory, it would have been a giant leap toward the renewal and healing of the destructive ways they had learned from a life of poverty in the slums.

Now, on Hiebert’s proposition about evangelism being the chief task of the church on earth, I do not think I can agree wholeheartedly. While I appreciate Hiebert’s attempts to delineate these three important themes for discussion’s sake, I think his characterizations become misleading at this point. The chief task of the church on earth is not simply evangelism. Rather, it is the work of translating the Kingdom within us into the life of the world around us. Christians are to build a more just society. Does this include evangelism, by which I assume Hiebert means preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ? Of course! However, I would be wary of evangelism for evangelism’s sake. Our goal is the total transformation of society and, as I just explained, evangelism, which results in the inner transformation of the individual soul, is a necessary objective as the church pursues this goal.

Moderator: Thank you for your honesty Dr. Toyohiko. I sincerely appreciate how you’ve shared from your own experience – even one of your failures. Let’s shift our discussion from evangelism to church. I understand that you have been very critical of established churches in Japan throughout your ministry, yet you have remained connected. How are you able to maintain that tension? More broadly, how do you view your role within the church?

Mr. Kagawa: Yes, you understand correctly. I have often criticized our churches on several accounts. I cannot be quiet when I see our churches fattening themselves on the donations of the bourgeois who prosper in the exploitative and damnable system of capitalism that – much to my disappointment – still rules our world today. I imagine you see the same sorts of behavior in your churches in the United States. I apologize for the sudden harshness of my tone in this regard, but this entire system of capitalism is infuriating. I would be happy to be rid of it altogether.[4]

As I was saying, I also find fault with the church’s incessant need to bicker and fight about every fine point of doctrine. I see this so often in our churches; I am even a little surprised to see that Hiebert has not included “useless argumentation” as one of his core themes of the missionary movement! I have no time for the church’s debates. The title of one of my books perfectly describes my final argument in doctrinal matters: Love the Law of Life. I am only concerned with seeing this love at work in our societies, especially for the sake of the poor. In addition, the gospel messages our churches now preach are so catered to individual needs. I can hardly bear it; it is as if the gospel of Jesus Christ has only to do with saving individual souls, with no bearing on how those individuals should live together in a just and loving society.

Alas, in spite of these criticisms, as you have noted, I have not been able to simply leave the church altogether. A quote comes to mind that has been attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo: “The church is a whore, but she is still my mother.” Indeed, the church has been my mother in many ways. As you know, my birth mother died when I was very young and I never felt loved as a child. However, my sadness was turned to joy as I experienced the wonderful love and hospitality of Dr. Charles Logan and Dr. Harry Myers, both Southern Presbyterian missionaries. Dr. Logan and his wife became like parents to me. Both he and Dr. Myers faithfully supported me throughout my life. It was their love that convinced me of my need for Christ. I shudder when I consider where I might be today had it not been for the Presbyterian Church in America that sent and supported these godly people in their missionary work. I am sure there are countless others like them; faithful missionaries all over the world who are supported by the generosity of the church. How could I turn my back on this institution that has nurtured and loved me so dearly? This would be a very selfish and ungrateful response.

With these thoughts in mind, I think of my role in the church as both prophetic and apostolic. As much as I love those in the church who have supported me, I will not be silent in my criticisms. I will continue to call the church away from her individualistic, privatized faith toward an all-embracing mission for the renewal of societies all over the world. However, I do not merely criticize the church; I offer a new way: The Society for the Friends of Jesus. In this order, my friends and I have provided a place to revitalize the church. My recent biographer has captured the spirit of our society very well. He says that we have combined “the Franciscan compassion for the poor, the Dominican preaching spirit, Jesuit discipline, the methodism of John Wesley’s spiritual group, and the hands-on activism of the Salvation Army.”[5] Our group exists to guide the church towards a way of life that brings economic, psychological, social, physical, and political emancipation to all – just as Jesus taught us in Luke 4:18-19.[6]

Our goal is not to take people out of their churches and sequester them like monks. Not at all! We want to send them out into the world where they can worship God in everything they do. We want to focus on building up the lay people. Our churches, especially those in the urban slums or out on the rural countryside, struggle to adequately equip and train their laity as workers for transformation. We’ve built several “Gospel schools” specifically for the purpose of training lay leaders in the knowledge and work of Jesus Christ. We want all people of the church, not just the pastors and priests, to join cooperatively in the movement of God.

In this way, I consider myself not only a prophet, but also an apostle – one who is planting, watering and nurturing the new seeds of faith as they grow and produce the fruit of righteousness in our world. I have never been attracted to long-term positions of simply maintaining the status quo of an institution; I thrive on being a catalyst of new life.

            Moderator: Wow, I can feel the passion in your words Dr. Kagawa. The Friends of Jesus order sounds like an amazing group of people. I wish I could hear more about your work with them, but we need to move on to Hiebert’s theme of kingdom. In his article, he reminds us of the danger of confusing our own ideas of utopia – Marxism, capitalism, or socialism – with the Kingdom of God.[7] Being an ardent supporter of socialism, do you share Hiebert’s concern? What does your support of socialism have to do with the Kingdom of God?

Mr. Kagawa:  Yes, I do share Hiebert’s concern on this matter. When we pursue God’s Kingdom here on earth, there is always a great risk that we will misrepresent the infinite love of God. While we may dearly desire to love others with the same love we have received from God, we still contain great capacity for evil that can sometimes overwhelm even our deepest desires for good. I have fought many battles against this seemingly ingrained bent towards violence and destruction in our society. As I expressed to you earlier, we are in dire need of individual transformation through Jesus Christ. We must be changed by his love if we are to have any hope in seeing the Kingdom come in our midst – both individually and corporately.

However, we cannot allow our fear rule over us as we strive to partner with God for the establishment of the Kingdom here and now. We must have faith in the love of God at work in us. Our faith gives us new eyes to see possibilities beyond what our minds can conceive, and the vision of this new creation calls forth our wholehearted response. Do we believe that God’s love can save humankind completely? This is the question we must answer. If we say yes, and I believe we do, we must overcome our fear and put our faith in God. Unfortunately, the Protestant church, amidst its fervor for preaching the forgiveness of sin, has been quick to forget that the comparatively “little” works of men and women can be united with the all-fulfilling, world-changing love of God in Jesus Christ. This is the love that can, and indeed already has, overcome all evil. We must be willing to let go our fear of failure and allow ourselves to be caught up in the mighty current of God’s eternal and ineffable love.

I have belabored this point because I sense a tinge of fear in Hiebert’s words of caution that I cannot ignore. We must dream big dreams for this world! And we can! When we look to the cross of Christ, we see the perfection of redemptive love: a love that binds together the love of God and the love of man and takes on God’s mission for the salvation and renewal of all creation. As individuals enter into this redemptive love and are themselves saved, they become saving individuals for the world. The fear I sense in Hiebert’s words makes me wonder if he has grasped the immensity and power of God’s redemptive love in the cross of Christ. It can overcome our limitations and empower us to live out the ideal of God in every aspect of our lives – especially our economic life.

Moving on to the second part of your question, yes, I am an ardent supporter of socialist economics and I have already voiced my utter disgust with the system of capitalism. I should clarify that I do not support all forms of socialism. Since we do not have time to explore all the details of my economic views, let it suffice to say that I support a system of cooperative economics – since the term “socialism” arouses such a varied, and mostly negative, response in the United States.

Cooperation is simply the most logical result when the cross-embracing love of Jesus is allowed to transform our society’s economic life. When this love takes root in our lives, things like individual property and inheritance rights are freely dedicated to God and to society. Profits are recognized as belonging to God, not to individuals, and are joyfully offered up in service of the Kingdom. Labor is respected and interest on money is not allowed. In cooperative economies, people are valued above materials and mutual aid supersedes the profit motive. These are economies are designed to be non-exploitative and eliminate the need for violence. I wholeheartedly believe that peace will not come to our world until our economics reflect the love of Christ that draws us together as one body, members one of another.[8] Since the cooperative movement is so wonderfully aligned with the ideals of Christian love and community, it is the best way forward as we seek to enter and receive the Kingdom of God in our world today.

Moderator: Thank you so much for that thorough response Mr. Kagawa. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to hear you speak to such vital issues. Unfortunately, we are reaching the end of our conversation. If I may, I would like to end by asking a somewhat selfish question. In a little more than two years, I will be complete my graduate education at Palmer Seminary and Eastern University and will set out as a leader and co-laborer in God’s great rescue mission on this earth. Could you offer me a few words of advice as I embark on this journey?

Mr. Kagawa: Certainly! I would be happy to impart a bit of wisdom that I have found along my own journey. Actually, I have two bits that I would like to share. Do we have time?

Moderator: Yes, yes. Please, you have my full attention.

Mr. Kagawa: Ok, thank you for your vigilance. I will try to be brief. When I was a young man, nearly your age, living in the slums of Kobe, I served my poor neighbors constantly and with all my heart. Like the Apostle Paul, I was poured out as a drink offering for my brothers and sisters in the slums. However, in the midst of all my loving service and sacrifice, I was ensnared by racist theories regarding my burakumin neighbors. These people are Japan’s hidden minority; the no-caste; the untouchables. While I did not refuse to serve the burakumin, I degraded them in my writings and never lifted my voice for their civil rights. These people were treated as less than animals, and I was complicit in supporting those who held them down. This is a mistake I sincerely regret. My first piece of advice is this: struggle with all your might to see the image of God embedded in every person you meet. Until you can see the divine reflected in the lives of those you serve, your love for them will remain shallow and incomplete. When you have caught a glimpse of this divine image in the ones you serve – celebrate, shout it out, rejoice in the goodness of God’s creation standing before you and become an advocate on their behalf so that the world might behold the glory of God in each and every man, woman, and child.

Finally, as you may know, I had the great privilege of meeting Mohandas K. Gandhi at the World Missionary Council in 1938. At this time, Japan was at war on the Chinese mainland. It seemed the entire country was overwhelmed with a spirit of nationalism and militarism. I was an outspoken critic of the war and had been arrested several times for my views. However, during our brief conversation, Gandhi went straight to the heart of the matter when he responded to my question about what he would do in the face of such vile hostility: “I would put the cooperatives and all your work in one scale, and put the honor of your nation in the other… and I [would] ask you to declare your views against Japan and in so doing make Japan live through your death.”[9] These words would come to haunt me. As you know, I was not able to stop Japan’s war machine. In fact, for a time, I even supported the war efforts. I could not find the courage to give my life for the sake of my country. My advice to you is simple: be strong and very courageous. As Jesus told his followers, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[10] You are that grain of wheat. Now go; bear much fruit.

Moderator: Dr. Kagawa, I cannot thank you enough for sharing this time with me today. I will remember and cherish your words for a very long time. Your life is a great inspiration to me and many others. Thank you so much for your example of faithful obedience to Christ. May God bless you as you continue on with your lectures.

[1] Hiebert, 154.

[2] Hiebert, 160-161.

[3] Schildgen, 88.

[4] Schildgen, 93.

[5] Schildgen, 132.

[6] Mark R. Mullins, “Christianity as a Transnational Social Movement: Kagawa Toyohiko and the Friends of Jesus.” Japanese Religions, vol. 32 (2006): 76.

[7] Hiebert, 158.

[8] Rom. 12:5 NRSV

[9] Schildgen, 213.

[10] Jn. 12:24

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.

Kagawa on Weak Churches

Though they profess belief in the height and depth and breadth of this love, many Christian churches hesitate to let it permeate man’s consciousness and develop a love movement. We must not forget that this hesitancy is due mainly to the history of the Protestant Church and the capitalist society in which it functions. The majority of church organizations today are dependant (sic), unfortunately, on the privileged class of profiteering society… the churches are rendered incapable of taking the conscious life of Christ as taught in the New Testament into their lives. This explains the existence of weak Christian churches and their impotence in the turmoil of the world today.

Toyohiko Kagawa in Brotherhood Economics

Kagawa: the Church ignores the enormous sins of capitalism

I am going my own way, which is different from the church today. The church is strict about insignificant sins and disregards the enormous sins of capitalism. When I look at the church in this light, I do not want to takes its easy path. I do not want to walk the path of the straight-line gospel people… Mission work risking one’s own life against capitalism is my path.

Toyohiko Kagawa

Personal Notes

Economic Theology

According to cooperatives the world today has the choice between the following:

Fascism (Corporatism) which is autocracy, first in business, by and by in politics;

Communism, which is class rule, and, at best, forced cooperation;

Capitalism, which is private profit, accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few upon whom the masses depend for work and who dictate at what price they shall be bought. This means a mass dictatorship.

Cooperatives, which means altruism, economic democracy, or, as Kagawa calls it, economic theology.

The religion of Jesus calls us to purify and rationalize by conscious acts of redemptive love all economic activities which have been heretofore relegated to the field of subconsciousness, thereby endeavoring to fulfil the ideal of God even in our economic life. If we leave the economic structure as it is today peace will never come. Nor will religion in its present state ever realize world peace. Peace will come only when the consciousness of redemptive love as manifested on the cross permeates the life of international economy through brotherhood love evidenced in the cooperative movement.

from Kagawa the Christian by Jan Karel Van Baalen (1936).