When Toyohiko Kagawa visited America for a preaching tour in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people went to hear him speak. He would speak in multiple venues each day, while newspapers covered his travels extensively. For a time, he was a household name—a Japanese Christian of impeccable character and real, lived-out faith, who came to America to preach the gospel and share his passion for social change on the basis of that gospel. He was friends with E. Stanley Jones, and he met Gandhi, and he was regarded as one of the greatest Christians of his time. Why is it, then, that we’ve never heard of him?
I came across Kagawa when reading Bishop George Bell’s Christianity and World Order, a book published just before WWII that looked forward to the reconstruction of the world after another global conflict. Bell, well connected in the ecumenical movement, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contact in England, and friends to other German luminaries such as Martin Niemöller, and it was clear in his little book that he also thought very highly of this figure, Kagawa, of whom I’d never before heard. Especially since I’ve got an interest in non-Western Christianities, I decided to check him out.
Kagawa, illegitimate son of a samurai family in Japan, converted to Christianity at a young age under the influence of a few Western missionaries. An avid, prolific, and wide reader he dug into advanced books of Western philosophy and theology, even translating some of them into Japanese as a young man. Convicted by the Sermon on the Mount, he decides to go and live in the slums of Kobe in order to live a practical Christianity among the poor. His experiences there change him for life—not only does he maintain and carry a sincere concern for the state of the poor, but he contracts trachoma and is affected by spells of blindness for the remainder of his life. At this time Kagawa came to realize that many people, because of their social condition of extreme poverty, would not be able to accept the gospel as good news until there was a change in their economics. This conviction motivated much of what followed in his life. In the midst of his astonishingly busy schedule working in the slums, Kagawa begins to write books, and from this time on he publishes several books each year of his life. Extremely successful as an author, he donates all the money from the sale of his books to his projects to assist the poor in Japan. After several years he travels to America to attend seminary at Princeton, where he meets and befriends E. Stanley Jones. He returns to Japan, and becomes a strong labor advocate. This, of course, is the early genesis of the labor movement, when strains of it are threatening to move into communism or socialism, but Kagawa’s focus is on a deeply Christian call for fair wages, healthy working conditions, and reasonable hours and pay. In the midst of this, Kagawa becomes enamored of co-ops as a model for bringing economic social change to what is still a feudalistically minded economic world in Japan. He advocates for better farming practices, teaching poor farmers about crop rotation and the planting of trees to protect against erosion. It is around this time that Kagawa comes to America for his national tour, and where he is so widely accepted and revered. In the following years, as the world began to gear itself up for another war, Kagawa advocates for demilitarization and peace. But this sets him against his own government quite starkly, and Kagawa’s calls for peace fall on increasingly deaf ears.
It is here that something startling happens. During the war, Kagawa was strongly censored by the Japanese government. Then, from within Japan, his tone began to change. He wrote, and spoke on radio, in defense of the Japanese empire. He began to speak about the war being rooted in “racial aggression,” by which he didn’t mean Japanese racial aggression against China, Korea, and the Philippines, but Western racial aggression against Japan. He became (and remained throughout the rest of his life) a strong supporter of Emperor Hirohito. The grim result of this period, of course, is the colossal loss of Japan and the unveiling of Japanese atrocities throughout East Asia.
After the war Kagawa became an advisor for Japan’s reconstruction, and he played an important role in advocating for the development of Japanese democracy. However, his name had been tarnished by his association with Japanese propaganda during the war, and at one point he was even considered by the American occupying forces for “purge”—that is, for the isolation and removal of those ultra-nationalists who had instigated the war in the first place. He avoided that purge on the merits of his pre-war work, but a shadow now hung over his name. In part because of this, a post-war American tour had little of the thrill of his pre-war efforts. For the remainder of his life Kagawa would advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament. He died in 1960.
The most fascinating moment in Kagawa’s life is his meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. War is on the horizon, and Kagawa has explained to Gandhi that his opinions are not terribly popular in Japan—in fact, that he is a “bit of a heretic.” He petitioned Gandhi’s advice—what would he do? Gandhi’s answer is pithy and to the point: “I would declare my heresies and be shot.” This is an astonishing moment if only because this is precisely what Kagawa failed to do. When the crucial moment came, he capitulated.
Why don’t we know about Toyohiko Kagawa? I think there are two reasons. First, we don’t hear much about Kagawa because his version of Christianity is uncomfortably intermixed with early 20th century socialist politics. Now, from my (limited) read of Kagawa’s life and work, I think that those things for which he advocated are wholesome and good. He was possessed of a sincere desire to see the situation of the poor changed, and he saw in Christianity a model for that change which might give life to the world. He felt that a Christianity which didn’t address the practical needs of real people wasn’t much of a Christianity at all. To this, I give my full assent. However, the swing of labor movements away from Christianity in the intervening years makes it difficult to hear and accept his concerns today. Additionally, his presentation of Christianity becomes uncomfortably close to a political platform. The platform hasn’t succeeded, and unfortunately the Christianity has fallen alongside it.
Second, I think we don’t hear much about Kagawa because of his capitulation during the war. Before the war, he had stood for Christianity, the gospel, and for peace. During the war, he stood for the political ends of his government—for Japan, for their advances into East Asia, and for military aggression. What is worse, Kagawa used (or allowed) his platform as a minister of the gospel to advance the political aims of the day. That intermingling is simply corrosive to gospel witness. It is difficult to recover one’s authority when it has been abused in that way.
So, what’s the warning for the (American) Church? It should be obvious. When Christianity is intermingled with a political platform, the end result, if the platform fails, is the discrediting of the Christianity. Irrespective of the truth of the Christianity itself, defeat of the platform brings about the dismissal of the faith that infused it. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Second, when Christians capitulate with the propaganda and rhetoric of their nation it does irreparable damage to their witness to the world. Christianity does not and cannot stand in support of political aims. It is corrosive to our gospel witness.
Toyohiko Kagawa was a fascinating, influential, but flawed follower of Jesus. I think it would be wise to learn from both his successes, and his failures.