Toyohiko Kagawa dedicated his life to improving the world around him

Like many who work at a university, I have books on my mind – not just those I want to read, but those I would like to write. I muse about writing a children’s book, introducing younger readers to some of the great religious figures of the past. I am particularly drawn to the heroes, the saints of the Christian tradition, including those of the Protestant tradition. Those who interest me especially are those who have laboured, reflected and provided models of service in the area of social justice. I think of figures such as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Catholic pacifist and workers’ rights advocate Dorothy Day, social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, and Canadian Baptist minister-turned-politician Tommy Douglas, among others. One name that is relatively unknown is that of Japanese Christian, Toyohiko Kagawa.

Toyohiko Kagawa was a convert to Christianity as a young man in the early years of the 20th century. He studied Christian theology at Kobe Theological Seminary to prepare for ministry in Japan. Discouraged by the emphasis that was placed on doctrine rather than service, he moved into a small home among the poor to live and work alongside them. In 1914 he travelled to the United States to study at Princeton University, focusing on the challenge of poverty and its causes. He had said, “I read in a book that a man called Christ went about doing good. It is very disconcerting to me that I am so easily satisfied with just going about.” Ministry, he realized, was not just preaching the gospel in clean churches to clean Christian people; it was seeing and responding to the needs, challenges and problems that exist in the world, including his community.

Committing his life to doing good, Kagawa returned to Japan in 1916, and in the next decades made it his task to minister to those who were often neglected or forgotten. He lived among the poor of Kobe, often taking them in to his home and sharing his meagre resources with them, often taking in newborn babies who might otherwise be neglected. Undeterred by his arrest in 1921 and 1922 for his part in labour activism during strikes of Osaka dock workers, he continued to advocate for the poor working class. His legacy includes organizing the Japanese Federation of Labour. A pacifist, he refused to support the Japanese war effort against China, founding the National Anti-War League in 1928.

Kagawa became known as a man of exceptional love and a champion of the poor. A social reformer, labour activist, and union organizer, he worked tirelessly to develop hospitals, schools and cooperatives among factory workers. A novelist and poet, his 1933 book A Grain of Wheat went through several editions, and was a best-selling work in Japan. Although he lived in the urban setting of Kobe, he had a great appreciation for nature; as one of Japan’s early environmentalists, he initiated a successful tree-planting campaign.

Passionate about building a better society for all people, Kagawa was motivated by his faith and desire to serve one who he believed to be the model of service. He wrote, “I am making every effort to live a life like that of Jesus Christ.” Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, at his death Kagawa was posthumously awarded Japan’s second-highest award, the Order of the Sacred Treasure. In his poem Discovery he had written his mandate:

God who dwells in my hand

Knows this secret plan

Of the things he will do for the world

Using my hand.

He is one of those through whom the light of God’s love has shined, as through stained glass.

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