It is the 23rd of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1960
In 1931 the popular magazine the Christian Century noted the church's propensity to find heroes who ride high for a time and then slip into obscurity. Somewhat presciently, they noted that Toyohiko Kagawa was the current Christian hero, not knowing that he too would be forgotten by so many by the end of the century.
Today, on the anniversary of Toyohiko's death on the 23rd of April in 1960, we will remember a fascinating character and Christian who spent much of his life fighting for the dignity of the poor.
Toyohiko Kagawa was born in 1888 to Kame and Junichi Kagawa. Kame was a businessman in Kobe, and Junichi was his concubine. By 1892, when Toyohiko was 4, both of his parents had died, and extended family and local missionaries took him in. His extended family was suspicious of the missionaries but allowed Toyohiko to learn English from them on one condition: he could not become a Christian.
Toyohiko was baptized in 1904 at the age of 16. This put him in a difficult position. We've noted before on this show the many difficulties the Japanese Christians have faced since the 16th century. But, you may remember that the Meiji Restoration changed the fortunes of many Christians. As an oversimplification, the Meiji Restoration was an attempt to modernize and westernize, and thus limited freedom of religion was introduced in Japan.
But this embracing of what was seen as a "western religion" made reactionary hardliners all the more suspicious of the foreign faith. Thus, public proclamations such as baptism could sever one Japanese Christian from their non-Christian families. This would happen to Toyohiko.
Toyohiko would attend the theological seminary at Kobe while attempting to figure out the shape and direction of his future life. He was convinced that the imitation of Jesus was the safest approach to Christian living and thus, as a student, moved into the slums and ministered there. He graduated, was ordained, and married but didn't leave the shack he lived in, where he ministered to the poor.
Quick note: it was the rapid industrialization and modernization of the Meiji Restoration that brought Western business models to the island and western-style slums.
Toyohiko would head to Princeton Seminary, where he studied theology, the peace movement, and American labor practices, among other things. He was there from 1914 to 1917 and created a reputation as a scholar across fields. His studies in the psychology of poverty were particularly well received. He moved back to Kobe in 1921, where he established the "Friends of Jesus," an independent order of evangelists and social workers.
Such was his reputation, despite being of a minority faith, that when the 1923 Tokyo earthquake devastated the city, he was called to help rebuild the city with a view towards assisting the poor and eliminating the slums. He also helped the Japanese working poor establish workers' unions, which he observed while studying in the United States.
His star in Japan would be tarnished when he condemned Japanese aggression against the Chinese and the United States. Furthermore, he rejected the Japanese turn towards capitalism with what he called "Brotherhood Economics." He believed that society should aim to replace the "profit" motive with a "service" motive.
As you might imagine, these cooperative models were not embraced by a booming Japanese or American economy, and Toyohiko was looked at warily by many of his fellow Japanese and Christians. He wrote:
"It seemed that everyone was attacking me – the Soviet Communists, the anarchists, the capitalists, the foul-mouthed literary critics, the sensationalist newspaper men, the Buddhist who could not compete with Christ, and those many Christians who profess Christ but believe in a Christianity which is sterile."
The Christian Century was right. Toyohiko Kagawa was a high-flying Christian celebrity in 1931 AND would slip into relative obscurity. His writings would fill over 20 volumes, and he was inducted into the Order of Sacred Treasure in Japan. Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians of a particular stripe have recognized Toyohiko Kagawa on their calendars of saints and commemorations.
Born in 1888, the Japanese Christian and Social Worker Toyohiko Kagawa died on the 23rd of April in 1960. He was 71 years old.
The reading for today, one of my favorite poems that I read in the first season, is Anya Krugovoy Silver's "No, It's Not"
The body of Christ, the priest murmurs,
placing a morsel of bread in my palm.
Only I hear my son whisper, No, it's not.
Eight year old skeptic, creed-smasher,
how to stop the erosion of what's possible?
Or unhook faith from what can be seen?
One evening, strolling the Jersey bay,
we took flailing horseshoe crabs
by their spiny tails, tossing them into tides
so they could glide back to the deep sea.
And wasn't that impulse, to save the ugly,
Love? My doubter, miracle-denier,
may God hurl your spikey edges into the waves.
May you be cradled in His body forever.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man whose favorite Kobe's include the beef, the late Bryant, and the Japanese city Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who wants to normalize fish and sticky rice for breakfast. You can catch us here every day and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.