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Toyohiko Kagawa Revisited

Robert M. Armstrong, Former Scottish Baptist minister

Let me at the outset introduce myself and explain how I come to be writing about Toyohiko Kagawa. My name is Robert Armstrong and I am a retired Scottish Baptist minister living in Glasgow. I was ordained to the ministry in 1962 and had two pastorates, the first in Alva in Central Scotland for three years and then in Paisley a large town to the Southwest of Glasgow where I served for 14 years. In 1979 I began work with the Baptist Union of Scotland responsible for its Publications Department for the next 14 years. I also served as a part-time Registrar of the Scottish Baptist College.
As a member of Hillhead Baptist Church in the West End of Glasgow I met two Japanese friends Fumi Nakabachi and Yushin Toda and soon began to engage them in conversation about Kagawa whom I greatly admired and had mentioned when preaching in the church. Recently these friends introduced me to Mr Wakamatsu who was interested in my acquaintance with Kagawa and during a visit to my home he invited me to contribute an article for this magazine.
So, now let me tell you how I first met Toyohiko Kagawa. The circumstances were somewhat unusual and happened when I was a schoolboy of around 11 years of age. The impact on me was immediate and profound; it remains with me some 60 years later. My introduction to this remarkable Christian came through a book I picked up to relieve boredom as I had to be at home resting because it was suspected that a swelling in my groin might lead to an abscess. I was intrigued by the title which ran vertically on the spine of the book spelling out the name KAGAWA and was a biography by William Axling.
Being the son of Christian parents and regular in attendance at the local Baptist church and Sunday School I was soon engrossed in a quite remarkable story and captivated by a most impressive Christian man, who even to my young mind seemed to embody the ideal of what it really meant to be a Christian. Now it has to be remembered this occurred towards the end of the Second World War when our country was at war with Japan and it was more usual for us in Britain to think of Japanese people as the dreaded enemy rather than with admiration as a notable Christian. I can illustrate this from my experience as young milk delivery boy where the concrete slabs of the path to one of our customer’s house had a pattern that resembled the rising sun shape of the Japanese flag. As result my brother and I became convinced that the people there might be Japanese spies and went off on all sorts of flights of fancy as to what they might be up to.
However, I was so impressed with the kind of Christian Kagawa was that his nationality did not matter, but it was many years later when I really began to reflect on his story which had so gripped and impacted on my childhood imagination and thought about what it would mean for my developing understanding of the Christian Gospel and its effects on individuals and society. This occurred when I had become a Baptist minister and found myself often referring to Kagawa and his work in my own preaching. Early in my first pastorate I was asked to present a discussion paper at an inter-denominational gathering of ministers. It did not take me long to decide that the subject of this exercise would be the life and influence of Toyohiko Kagawa. Using Axling’s biography I prepared the paper which I found most stimulating and even inspiring to produce and I believe I conveyed something of this to my fellow ministers; some of whom had heard of Kagawa but were not familiar with the details of his life and ministry. The handwritten notes which I used then and on a number of subsequent occasions are the main source of this article.
In recording my impressions of Kagawa and the profound influence he has had on my life and thinking over many years I begin by focussing on the simplicity of how he came to the Christian faith and the directness of how he went on to apply it in his life As a young man, keen to further his education, he received lessons on English from American Presbyterian missionaries. One of the texts they gave him was an English version of Luke’s Gospel. He was much impressed by what he read and was moved to utter the prayer: “Oh God, make me like Christ.”
His life from that moment on was an attempt to fulfil that prayer; involving him in theological studies at a Presbyterian seminary, open air preaching in a slum area of the city of Kobe which in turn was to lead him to become one of the 10,000 inhabitants of the notorious Shinkawa slum. The conditions of the industrial workers who lived there were appalling, comprising a series of unpaved alleys lined with houses which were little more than boxes, no more than six feet square, with no proper sanitation; giving rise to squalor and disease. It was an area where crime and prostitution were rife. Having visited the area a number of times as a student preacher he decided that it was not enough to speak about the love of God, it had to be expressed in practise through identification with the slum dwellers and taking practical steps to deal with their problems. Consequently he gave shelter to some who had no place to live and took in others who were ill and needed care. On one occasion one of those he was sheltering was a man who had committed murder and who could only get to sleep holding Kagawa’s hand.
This first hand involvement with the slum dwellers brought Kagawa to the realisation that there were many other social issues that had to be addressed if there was ever to be any improvement in their lot. I was very moved by the fact that he realised that it was not enough to have sympathy and show love to those were disadvantage something had to be done to change their situation for the better. This led him to investigate labour conditions in the factories and also in the agricultural areas from which many had come to work in the factories. As a result he became involved in Trades Union activity and agitation for land reform about which I shall say more later.
An aspect of Kagawa which I greatly admired was the way in which he combined the kind of emotional commitment to people’s conditions with a rigorous intellectual observation of, and inquiry into, the underlying reasons for these conditions. His remarks: “that in looking at life in the slums he was examining some of the pathological manifestations of society,” was a very profound insight. He saw that these unpleasant and undesirable aspects of the slums were all interconnected: labour conditions, infant mortality, disease, prostitution stemmed from poverty due to bad working conditions. The over population of the cities brought people to the slums because there was no where else to go and that was in turn connected with the conditions of the peasantry. The fact that after some time in Shinkawa he went off to the United States to study the sociological and economic implications of what he had experienced and seen showed just how seriously he took these matters and how thoroughly he applied himself to finding answers.
Following upon these studies he prepared a report for government and other authorities but had the wisdom to recognise that people often do not read such official documents, or are not moved by them, and so he wrote a novel based on his findings entitled Across the Death Line, which not only sold well but had a marked effect. The result was that action was taken to remove not only the Shinkawa slum but those in five other cities. He used the royalties from the book to support settlements he had established to minister to a variety of disadvantaged people.
On his return from America his work and influence began to spread as he took an active part in organising both industrial and peasant workers with a view to improving their situation. But he was not only concerned with rights but with the labourer himself. He had three demands:
1. A chance to live;
2. A chance to work
3. A chance to show the marks of a man.
Kagawa’s belief was that unions were necessary but labour problems can only be solved by the inner awakening of the labourer
He was not alone in this but his work in the slums commended him and so when a dock strike took place in Kobe in 1921 he was ‘drafted’ so to speak to be the leader. In that same year he was responsible for forming a peasants union. All of this helped him to make a wider impact with his view that a well ordered society must be based on the Gospel. He did all in his power to propagate these views; travelling around the country addressing public meetings, using the press and his writings. As well as the novel he also wrote a book on The Psychology of Poverty.
It is very likely that it was because of these efforts that even the earthquake which brought such devastation to Tokyo in 1923 gave him further opportunity to influence the life of his country. The Government set up an Imperial Commission to assist them in the work of reconstruction. It had 180 members comprising some of the ablest men in national life and had the Premier as its chairman. Kagawa was invited to serve on this Commission and was the only one who was not a high ranking government official. And this, despite the fact that he had often been in dispute with the government in his championing the cause of the poor and disadvantaged. It was widely recognised that the report which was finally adopted was greatly influenced by Kagawa’s thinking.
Following this experience he was drafted for service on the Government’s Commission on Unemployment, it’s Commission on Labour Exchanges and its Commission on Emigration. And then in 1931 when Tokyo was trying hopelessly to deal with slump conditions just as it was recovering from the earthquake the person asked to head up the Social Welfare Bureau was again Toyohiko Kagawa. This work he did without pay or perquisites and he did not even take any money to fiancé his settlements.
Believing that individuals and social movements should only rely only on soul-force and the power of love, Kagawa was absolutely opposed to war and all that relates to it It was his view that only when force is eliminated that economic movements realise their highest goal. Economics based on force belong not to the realm of scholarship but soldiership. The only true road is through love and the wisdom which wells up from within. This was a principle which we he put into practice in his time in the slums when he was often under threat of violence for a variety of reasons. He never sought the help or protection of the police nor did he yield to the threat of the bullies; preferring to follow the rule that Man cannot be saved through opposition and violence.
It was not surprising then that his was the only Japanese name which appeared on the manifesto against military conscription presented to the League of Nations, which bore the signatures of Tagore, Gandhi, Einstein, Romain Rolland, and other prominent leaders in the war on war.
In 1928 he organised the National Anti-War League of Japan. This organisation embraced a wide spectrum of interests including progressives from political parties, scholars, religious leaders and literary figures. Their platform had three main planks:
1. We are opposed to war and all preparations of war.
2. We are opposed to all aggressive imperialistic, political, economic, and uplift movements.
3. We are opposed to the advocacy of aggression, to imperialistic utterances, and to the oppression of weaker groups and peoples.
A wide ranging programme of activities was pursued in support of and to further these aims.
Another way in which Kagawa sought to make a wider impact was the inauguration of a massive evangelistic effort under the title of the Kingdom of God Movement. While he believed, and had himself demonstrated, what could be achieved by individuals and small numbers of Christians he was convinced that much more could be realised if more people followed the way of Christ and indeed set a target of persuading a million people.
Kagawa’s way of interpreting the Christian Gospel in terms of the Kingdom of God had a marked effect on my own thinking as it brought together both personal discipleship and social concern and action. Indeed I would go so far as to say that while I never sought to emulate all that he did, his understanding and interpretation of the Gospel led me to a conviction that for too long the Church has preached a Gospel about Jesus rather than the Gospel of Jesus which essentially is the Good News of the Kingdom.
My admiration for what Kagawa was and did was intensified by the fact that he achieved so much against considerable odds. Although Kagawa’s father had a position of some social prominence as Headman of a province of 19 villages and was Secretary to the Pricy Council a group of advisers to the Emperor his son about whom I have been writing was the result of an illicit affair his father had when he moved to the city of Kobe to enter business. Toyohiko was one of four children conceived in this way and was the only one whom his father adopted as his own. However, by the time he was four years old both his parents were dead which meant his return to the ancestral home in Awa. His father’s wife and foster grandmother gave him a home without love; where the only thing they were generous in was punishment. He found solace in the bamboo grove, the riverside and a kind of museum of Imperial relics which were part of the house. His family had a great history and tradition, none of which brought him peace or happiness. As well as the difficulties of his birth and childhood he had poor physical health, suffering from tuberculosis, kidney disease and glaucoma which greatly impaired his eyesight. All of which serves to confirm that Toyohiko Kagawa was a man not only of deep faith, but also of great strength of character which did not depend on physical well being. As a person who myself suffers from some sight impairment I was much taken with Kagawa’s view that blindness was the same as not having no wings; one found other ways to fly.
It has also to be noted that although he met with much success in his Christian work and service he also encountered opposition and difficulties. In his work in the slums there were the spongers who were ready to beat him if the necessary cash or clothing was not forthcoming. And there was even opposition from some who preferred things as they were as for example the husband of a prostitute whom Kagawa tried to help who objected as this was depriving his family of their income.
When he took an interest in the rights and conditions of the labourers and peasants the authorities sometimes reacted, as they usually do, with suppression and imprisonment. Even within the trade union movement he was held in suspicion by the more revolutionary or Communistic elements. And then when some of his policies were being accepted and he was seen as co-operating with the authorities he was accused of collaboration and betrayal. His anti-war and pacifist views brought down the wrath many on him; he was accused of being the tool of American pacifists and Russian communists. He was denounced as a traitor to his country and the furore which was created led to his life being under threat and meant that the police had to put him under detention for his own protection.
I believe that what sustained Kagawa throughout his life and made possible so many achievements was that he was not only a man of action but of very deep spirituality. He spent much time in prayer, fasting and meditation. Religion for him was an art concerned with the whole of life. He sought to foster and promote the communism of the early Church. He thought that Communistic and Socialistic programmes were too real not ideal. He believed that the way to find God is among men.
Included in Axling’s biography of this remarkable Christian are what he describes as Kagawagraphs which show that there was a strong mystic element to his spirituality which I have always found interesting and stimulating and often used in leading others in meditation.
Here are some examples:
“Miracles! Miracles! Life is a miracle! Death is a miracle! Law is a miracle! Reality is a miracle! Illness is a miracle! Recovery is a miracle! Everything has an existence independent of mine. This is a miracle!”
“Holiness is the heavenward open window of the soul. Holiness is the well which God has dug deep down into a man’s spirit. Eternally God looks into the soul through this open window. And some time the day will dawn when the soul will courageously wing its way upward through this window opening toward heaven.”
He wrote in this vein on quite a range of subjects: Art, Science and Religion in general but also more particularly on Sin, Suffering and Love. There is much more but let me conclude with this On Finding God
“God dwells among the lowliest of men. He sits on the dust heap among the prison convicts. With juvenile delinquents He stands at the door, begging bread. He throngs with the beggars at the place of alms. He is among the sick. He stands in line with the unemployed in front of the free employment bureaus.
Therefore let him who would meet God, visit the prison cell before going to the temple. Before he goes to church let him visit the hospital. Before he reads his Bible let him help the beggar standing at his door.”
I count myself greatly privileged to have met, through the pages of a book some 60 years ago, a man who not only thought and wrote like that but actually lived that, Toyohiko Kagawa.

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