Feast of Toyohiko Kagawa (April 23)   Leave a comment

Above:  Toyohiko Kagawa

Image in the Public Domain


TOYOHIKO KAGAWA (JULY 10, 1888-APRIL 23, 1960)

Renewer of Society and Prophetic Witness in Japan

The Episcopal Church celebrates the life of Toyohiko Kagawa on April 23 and describes him as a “Prophetic Witness in Japan.”  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada also observe this feast on the same day, but list him as a “Renewer of Society.”  Both labels are accurate.

Christ alone can make all things new.  The spirit of Christ must be the soul of all social reconstruction.

–Toyohiko Kagawa

Toyohiko Kagawa–Christian minister, labor activist, political dissident and prisoner, civil servant, pacifist, advocate for slum dwellers and the working poor, and Christian Socialist–grew up a Buddhist.  He, born in Kobe, Japan, on July 10, 1888, was the second child of businessman-politician Denjiro Kagawa and concubine Kame.  They died two months apart, before our saint was five years old.  For six years young Toyohiko lived on the Kagawa family farm in Awa provivince.  There he studied the Confucian classics.  At the age of 11, after a false accusation of harming a girl, he went to the middle school at Tokushima, on the island of Shikiku.  This was an educational institution he wanted to attend.  Young Toyohiko was a serious student who desired to master the English language.  That interest, combined with his location, led to the next step in our saint’s spiritual journey.

Kagawa learned English and came to Christ under the tutelage of Drs. Harry Myers and Charles Logan, Presbyterian ministers.  In 1903, at the age of fifteen years, our saint converted to Christianity.  His first prayer was

Oh God, make me like Christ!

Young Toyohiko, baptized and determined to study for the ordained ministry, had found a new family.  He also lost his old one; the Kagawas disowned him.

Kagawa had two main social concerns–pacifism and poverty.  These existed in the context of his promise to God to dedicate his life to telling the story of the cross of Christ.  The church, our saint insisted, must identify with the poor and the downtrodden and serve God in them.  The church, he concluded, was not doing as well by this standard as it should.  Pacifism was a matter of following the Golden Rule, one of Christ’s commands.

Dr. Myers arranged for the 17-year-old Kagawa to study at Presbyterian College, Tokyo, starting in 1905.  There our saint remained until tuberculosis forced him to leave in 1908.  He had developed interests in and studied theology, philosophy, sociology, and economics.  His studies had not ended, however.

Katawa returned to Kobe, where he continued his theological studies.  Academics were important in preparation for ordained ministry, he affirmed, but he needed to serve the poor also.  Therefore our saint lived not in a residence hall but under a bridge then in a slum.  In 1909 he decided not to seek ordination but to serve the poor full-time.  From 1910 to 1924, with some gaps, Kagawa lived in a tiny hut in a slum in Kobe.  In May 1914, when he married Haru, a factory worker, he and his wife lived in a tiny hut.  She also cooked for sixteen people daily.  Husband and wife were a team.

In August 1914 Kagawa sailed for the United States, to study at Princeton University.  He cobbled together the fare with help from his in-laws, Drs. Myers and Logan, his church, and the seminary at Kobe.  For eighteen months our saint investigated urban poverty, social services, and living conditions.  He also began to formulate strategies that might prove effective in Japanese cities.  Kagawa decided to stop being a social worker and to be come a social reformer.  He thought about how to change institutions and society, to alter conditions that contribute to poverty.  How to create more jobs, increase wages, improve education, make health care more accessible, et cetera became concerns for him.  This had a theological grounding–the affirmation of inherent human dignity.

Kagawa, back in Japan, became a social reformer.  He also decided to seek ordination after all.  Our saint, ordained in 1917, worked in the slums.  Kagawa, the national secretary of the Japanese Federation of Labor, published The Adoration of the Laborer in 1919.  This prompted his arrest that year.  Two years alter he was back in prison for leading a strike and arguing for the right to workers to organize.  (Labor unions were illegal in Japan until 1925.)  Between arrests he wrote an influential novel, Across the Death-line, about conditions in slums.

Japanese officialdom, which kept Kagawa under surveillance much of the time, wavered between labeling him a criminal and questioning his patriotism on one hand and hiring him on the other hand.  In 1923 an earthquake devastated Tokyo and Yokohama, killing 100,000 people and rendering five million people homeless.  Kagawa organized the relief projects so ably that he went on to serve on the Imperial Economic Commission.  He used his influence to help pass laws to end slums in Asaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Yokohama.  On the other hand, Kagawa’s pacifism angered militarist elements of society and government .  In 1927 he was the only Japanese person to sign an international anti-military conscription manifesto presented to the League of Nations.  Other signers included Mohandas Gandhi and Albert Einstein.  Our saint was allegedly a

traitor in the pay of American imperialists

and a

tool of the Russian Communists.

He certainly made no friends among militarists by organizing the National Anti-War League the following year.  In 1940 Kagawa’s public apology to the people of China for the Japanese invasion led to more time in prison.

It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.


In August 1941 Kagawa and seven other Japanese men traveled to the United States.  There they engaged in dialogue in the vain search for ways to avoid war between the U.S.A. and the Japanese Empire.  Our saint, recalling hearing news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, wrote:

I felt that all the lights of the world had gone out.  My heart was broken.

During World War II the Imperial Japanese government continued to vacillate regarding how to treat Kagawa.  In 1943 they arrested him for being a pacifist then released him without filing charges.  Then, in March 1945, toward the end of the war, they appointed him the Chairman of the Wartime Relief Committee.

After World War II Kagawa became the civil servant in charge of social services programs.  Prime Minister Naruhiko Higaskikuni (in office August 16-October 8, 1945) told our saint:

Dr. Kagawa, Japan has been destroyed, not because we had not a sufficient, but because we had suffered the loss of a good standard of morality and engaged in war.  We need a new standard of ethics, like that of Jesus Christ.  Buddhism can never teach us to forgive our enemies; nor can Shintoism.  Only Jesus Christ was able to love his enemies.  Therefore, Dr. Kagawa, if Japan is to be revived, we need Jesus Christ as the basis of our national life.  I want you to help me put the love of Jesus Christ into the hearts of our people.

–Quoted in Orlo Strunk, Jr., In Faith and Love (Nashville, TN:  Graded Press, 1968), page 26

Kagawa eventually retired from that work.  His health failing, he spent his final year of life bedridden.  Our saint died in Tokyo on April 23, 1960.  He was 71 years old.

Kagawa was a patriot–one frequently at odds with his government, which kept him under surveillance, arrested him occasionally, and hired him from time to time.  He was a pacifist.  During much of his life the government was under the control of militarists who ordered atrocities–violations of human rights.  Kagawa was a labor activist.  During some of his years labor unions were illegal.  If he had never been at odds with his government, he would have been a hypocrite.

Kagawa was indeed a renewer of society and a prophetic witness.

I offer you, O reader, the germane propers from Episcopal and Lutheran sources.  All three collects apply well to Kagawa’s life and legacy.









We bless your Name, O God, for the witness of Toyohiko Kagawa, reformer and teacher,

who was persecuted for his pacifist principles and went on to lead a movement for democracy in Japan;

and we pray that you would strengthen and protect all who suffer for their fidelity to Jesus Christ;

who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Job 13:13-22

Psalm 140

Philippians 1:12-20

Luke 22:47-53

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 341


O God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served, and to give his life for the world.

Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help.

Through us give hope to the hopeless,

love to the unloved,

and rest to the weary,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.


Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image.

Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression.

Help us, like your servant Toyohiko Kagawa, to work for justice among people and nations,

to the glory of your name, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60



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