Kagawa: Proletarian Saint


VITAL religion displays its presence in any period by two infallible signs — the production of prophets and the production of saints. As long as there is prophecy, — true prophecy, not the spurious soothsaying that betrays the name, — society is brought under ethical judgment, out of which comes an end to complacency and a beginning to reform. As long as there are saints, puny man is saved from despair, being thus energized with living proof that the spiritually exacting is nevertheless the humanly attainable. However desolate the religious outlook may have become, a discovery that prophecy has revived or that sanctity is somewhere triumphant will send a shock of new hope through the religious community.

That very thing can be seen happening among Occidental Protestants to-day. Reduced to virtual despair in the effort to set up moral controls over a civilization which is the product of the amoral machine, the churches, which have found themselves being relegated to a supernumerary rôle in the social drama, are suddenly aflame with excitement over an evangelist who has emerged out of the slums of Japan. Wherever he goes, the crowds exceed the capacity of the halls in which he speaks. Dignitaries and committees besiege him to extend his visit to America another six months, another year — there are invitations pending which would require at least five years for their fulfillment. His welcome is as unmeasured in the fundamentalist South as in the latitudinarian North. It is a welcome which betrays the desperate eagerness of the hope that in Toyohiko Kagawa the churches of the West have discovered one who can both speak to them a new word of prophecy and disclose before them a new pattern of sainthood. Ex oriente lux!

There will be many, I am aware, to dispute this interpretation of the extraordinary interest being shown in Kagawa’s current tour throughout the United States. The American public, they will remind me, has a tradition of readiness to go off its head over visiting celebrities. Nor does it make much difference in what respect the visitor has a claim to fame. Hungarian revolutionists, Swedish nightingales, German (or ex-German) physicists, Balkan queens — there is ticker tape enough for all! Is the excitement over this itinerant Japanese evangelist, therefore, anything of more lasting significance than the excitement over last year’s Oxford Communist lecturer? When Kagawa returns to his Kobe slum, will there be any more evidence that he has been here than t here now is that Dr. Coné once passed this way?

It is more than likely that the present Kagawa fad, in so far as it is a fad, will flatten out in much this fashion.

By this time next year I should not be surprised to hear ecclesiastics burbling in some such vein as this: ‘Kagawa? Oh yes, that Japanese fellow. Astonishing business, was n’t it? He could n’t be understood more than half of the time; if the crowds had been able to interpret his accent they still would n’t have comprehended his ideas. Well, they satisfied their curiosity. That was all there was to that!’ Yet it is possible — just possible — that the current attention being given Kagawa is of more lasting importance than these reverend gentlemen think, or than next year’s drop in the excitement may indicate. I wish to suggest several reasons why the Western churches may ultimately find out that the excitement stirred by Kagawa’s visit this year has genuine, continuing significance. Or perhaps caution would write that last sentence in the subjunctive: there are reasons to believe that Kagawa’s visit may have such significance.


The story of Kagawa’s life has been told so frequently that it need not be repeated here in any detail. There is a full-length biography by William Axling; there are a number of biographical pamphlets, of which the most enlightening is that by Helen Topping, for years the Japanese evangelist’s English secretary. Still more revealing are several of Kagawa’s novels. Parts of the largely autobiographical trilogy, Across the Death Line, A Shooter at the Sun, and Listening to the Voice of the Prison Walls, have been incorporated in Before the Dawn, an English translation published several years ago, and A Grain of Wheat, another translation put out this year. Other translations of Kagawa’s novels, all best sellers in Japan, are to be published in England and in the United States within the next year or two. I mention these sources for the benefit of any who may be more interested in discovering the facts about the man’s life than in a discussion of his possible importance.

In many respects, Kagawa’s career reflects the yeasty period through which Japan has been passing during the last forty years. Born in the year when the impact of foreign ideas registered in the granting of a constitution, he has shaped his career amid a maelstrom of social and economic changes. In the nineties, he was the typical bright Japanese lad of the period, eager for contact with foreign ideas. He followed the typical educational routine of the ambitious, concentrating on the study of English. He was offered the typical road to political eminence, an education at the Imperial University and a place in the diplomatic service. Every such period, however, generates its rebels. Japan, soon after the turn of the century, was full of idealistic youngsters who were not content to mount the ladder which a paternalistic government was offering. They must find their own footholds. Kagawa was one of the rebels.

As far as one can see, the circumstance which threw Kagawa’s career into the religious field was almost wholly fortuitous. The boy wanted to learn English. He wanted to learn it, not in the stilted textbook form in which it was being taught in a few schools, but he wanted to learn to speak it idiomatically and with the foreigner’s pronunciation. A missionary was forming a group to read the English Bible; Kagawa joined the group. To give his pupils the ‘feel’ of the language they were struggling to master, the missionary adopted the effective pedagogical device of requiring them to commit to memory certain passages in the New Testament. Kagawa’s career began at that point. One day he was an ambitious Japanese youngster concentrating all his energies on making his tongue reproduce certain sounds which he had been assured were good English; the next he was a strangely moved young man trying to make his mind tell him what the sounds meant. Most of the astonishing aspects of what followed derived from his tendency to interpret the meaning of the sounds with great literalness. The Japanese, as more than one traveler has observed, are a very literal people.

The result, it hardly needs to be said, was a Saint Francis period in young Kagawa’s life. What else is to be expected when a young idealist insists on trying to interpret the New Testament literally? Family ties were broken, the last hope of a public career abandoned. Presently even the modest security of a dormitory room in a missionary theological school was renounced. The young fellow had to get down into the slums, had to share the life of the poor and the outcast. It was during this period that many of the most romantic incidents in the Kagawa story took place — his living with beggars, his sharing with thieves, his caring for those with repulsive diseases. During the same period, likewise, he contracted those slum diseases — tuberculosis, which almost cost his life, and trachoma, which has almost cost his sight.

Here was sainthood in the slums. Martyrdom would have quickly followed had not certain missionary friends stepped in to make possible an interlude in which Kagawa came to this country and obtained a divinity degree at Princeton. It throws a revealing sidelight on his character to discover that while at Princeton he persuaded the authorities to let him spend far more time in studying mathematics and science than theology. But when the period of American study was over, and Kagawa returned to Kobe, it was not to resume the Saint Francis rôle. The slums, he had discovered, needed more than the presence of saints.

At this point Kagawa began to take on national importance in Japan. He still lived in the slums, he still quoted the New Testament. But he began to do his preaching in the shipyards and in the mills of Japan’s rapidly developing factory centres. As a result, Japan had its first labor union in 1912, with Kagawa as its founder. A little later there was a Japanese Federation of Labor, with Kagawa as its leader. And after that came the opening of that industrial warfare which, despite iron repression, goes on in Japan still, and will continue. In the first great shipyard strikes at Kobe, and in the rice riots which swept the nation in 1919, Kagawa emerged as the proletarian leader and hero. It was during this period, naturally, that he won the distinction of going to jail.

With the great earthquake of 1923, however, Kagawa’s career entered a new phase. In the tremendous tasks of rehabilitation he found it possible to work effectively with government officials; at the same time, the government began to suspect that he might be far more useful outside jail than in. Moreover, by this time the pacifist strain in the New Testament had begun to make definite trouble for Kagawa’s position as a labor leader. Japanese labor, partly influenced by what was going on in Russia and even more by a realistic appreciation of the power of its opponents, was turning definitely toward industrial war. Kagawa became increasingly insistent on eschewing violence. Inevitably there was a split, which, while never openly acknowledged, to-day makes Kagawa more of a patron saint than an active participant in the Japanese labor movement.

Deserted by his labor following, but as keenly alive as ever to Japan’s need for social reconstruction, Kagawa turned from the factory centres to the country and the seacoast villages. The plight of the farmers and fishermen grew heavy on him. Seeking means for securing some measure of economic security for these savagely exploited groups, but determined that this should not entail resort to violence, the Japanese evangelist came upon the story of Bishop Grundtvig and the coöperative movement which has grown out of his People’s Schools in Denmark. The story of the Rochdale weavers and their British coöperative movement also gripped his imagination. The Raiffeisen credit-union movement in Germany fitted easily into the same picture of a transformed rural Japan that he had begun to see.

It would be untrue to speak of Kagawa as the founder of the cooperative movement in Japan. But it is beyond debate that his driving energy has transformed that movement into one of the most powerful economic and social forces in the island empire. In his campaign seven kinds of cooperatives have been developed. Of these the consumers’, producers’, credit union, insurance, health, and public utility coöperatives are functioning; the international marketing coöperative is still in the blueprint stage. (It is to the growth of these international marketing coöperatives, incidentally, that Kagawa looks for solution of those economic issues between nations which he holds to be the underlying causes of war.) Commanding a considerable income from his writing and speaking, he continues to live on a rigidly ascetic plane, using all the funds on which he can lay his hands to provide capital for new coöperative ventures. Thus he continues to campaign back and forth through Japan, preaching what he conceives to be the Christian gospel as no other evangelist has ever preached it there, and organizing coöperatives as the means of securing a social order in which Christian ideals may be practised in daily living.


Kagawa is viewed with suspicion by many missionaries and many Christian ministers in Japan. I once asked him why. ‘Oh, they have their social position to protect,’ he laughed. ‘They can’t afford to be too friendly with me; I’m a jailbird.’ But that is not the whole story. Again and again I have listened while missionaries who would certainly be ready to brave social opprobrium have shaken their heads over the man and his work. ‘He’s too inclined to irregular methods; too little interested in building up the Church; too prone to go chasing off after some new scheme before he finishes what he has been doing.’ Disparagement of this sort has increased in recent years. Why, then, should the American churches show so much excitement over the man’s coming to our shores?

Well, for one thing, it must be admitted that many ecclesiastical leaders are glad to be able to exhibit such a missionary trophy just now. Anyone who knows Western Protestantism knows that for the last dozen years questions as to the success of its foreign missionary enterprise have been on the increase. For generations the churches have been exhorted to prove their faith by devoting thousands of missionary lives and millions of missionary dollars to the conversion of non-Christian lands. Has all this giving been wasted? It means much to a harassed mission board executive to be able to display a figure who has acquired the prominence which Kagawa has in Japan and exclaim, ‘Who dares to withhold support from our enterprise when we can show results like this?’

More importantly, Kagawa is being welcomed by some thoughtful Christian leaders in the West as a first indication that the stream of Christian thinking and activity may reverse its direction, and begin to flow as it did originally from East to West. The collapse of Occidental ethical pretensions following the World War has brought a humility to Western religion which has made it the fashion to deny that there is any ecclesiastical imperialism concealed within the missionary enterprise. Numberless church conferences have declared that it is no longer the missionary purpose to take truth from West to East, but to share truth between all lands. The trouble is that there have been so few Oriental bearers of light who have come to the Occident to prove that this is more than an empty phrase. Kagawa is almost the first to be put forward by those who insist that there has been a reversal of direction in the flow of the missionary tide.

But the real importance which attaches to Kagawa is to be found in neither of these factors. It is to be found, rather, in the sense of social desperation characteristic of the Western Church at present, and in the hope that this saint from the Kobe slums can disclose a way by which the churches can regain social power without surrendering their religious immunities. Or, to put the issue baldly, can this Japanese evangelist show the churches of the Occident how they can bring to pass a social revolution without getting mixed up in the monstrosities and reprisals of a class war? It is really in the hope that he can do this that Protestantism in America is crowding to hear every word Kagawa has to utter.

For years the churches of the West have been heading straight for their present social dilemma. Forty-five years ago Leo XIII issued his RerumNovarum to awaken Roman Catholics to the responsibility incumbent on the Christian to secure more justice in the social order. At about the same time Josiah Strong, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Washington Gladden began to impress the same responsibility on the consciences of Protestants. For some years after that it was possible to hope that the evolutionary march of progress, diffusing enlightenment abroad, would bring the thing to pass. Men would perceive the evils of the order in which they lived; with knowledge would come the desire to reform. It was a period in which a Ralph Easley could win church acclaim for launching a National Civic Federation in which, by the simple device of persuading an August Belmont (finance), a Charles M. Schwab (management), and a Samuel Gompers (labor) to sit around the same table, the problems of an inequitable society would be solved.

Well, that bright dream has been dissipated, and Mr. Easley is out trying to catch the big bad reds who, he holds, are to blame. But the churches of the West, having spent all these years passing resolutions calling for social justice, suddenly find themselves confronted with the fact that those holding power in our existing society — and fattening on it — have no intention of surrendering it. To make them surrender implies a prior fight. Are the churches to become embroiled in such a fight? If they do, they will certainly be badly mauled, for their institutional commitments expose them everywhere to reprisals from their wealthy members. And moreover, if the churches begin to sanction class war, what becomes of the New Testament?

As the sense of social crisis has deepened, the division between parties within the churches has likewise deepened. From the right have come warnings against inexpert meddling with an intricate and still-functioning social mechanism. From the left have come warnings against contributing, even by acquiescence, to the perpetuation of injustice. And from all sides have come warnings against seeking ends by means incompatible with that ethic of love which is supposed to be the foundation of the Christian gospel. Is it any wonder that hosts of American clergymen and lay leaders have found themselves so hopelessly confused as to be reduced to virtual inaction? Honestly concerned that the obvious inequities of the social order shall be corrected, these men have professed themselves baffled in their search for methods which could achieve this, as they might phrase it, ‘in a Christian way.’


There are two major reasons why the coöperative movement makes a tremendous appeal to men beset by this dilemma. In the first place, it offers a programme of gradualism which at the same time affords its adherents a chance for immediate activity. It does not require an initial overthrow of the existing order; the coöperator merely seeks to set up an enclave within the existing order — an enclave which he believes will gradually enlarge to absorb the whole. Plainly this is a process which need not, and probably will not, involve pitched battle with the beneficiaries of the present scheme of things. Moreover, wh ile the movement toward a coöperative society is thus gradual, it may begin at once in definite and not too difficult acts to be performed by individuals. Hundreds of ministers, having preached resoundingly on the need for a righteous social order, must have had the experience of being confronted by parishioners who asked to be shown a definite part in bringing such an order to pass. It has been a difficult request to answer. No such difficulty besets the minister who champions the coöperative technique. Asked to guide a parishioner who would express his social concern in action, he need not delay an instant in offering counsel: ‘Join the coöperative! Work for the spreading of coöperatives!’

In the second place, and more importantly, the cooperative movement attracts church interest because of its supposed compatibility with all those vague yet potent slogans which have long provided the stock vocabulary for religious idealism. Brotherhood, mutual aid, human equality (the oneman-one-vote principle of coöperative control), social solidarity — all these can be presented as attainable within a coöperative order without first wading through blood. Few of the clergy retain confidence that a confused political liberalism can provide a peaceful social reorganization. Coöperation, however, now seems to them the only method in sight which affords hope of securing necessary changes by peaceful means. And is this a real hope or another illusion? Look at Scandinavia!

Here, then, is reason enough for the readiness of Western churches to grant a hearing to a coöperative missioner just now. And Kagawa fits the part of such a missioner perfectly. Let me list five reasons why he is being asked to speak as often as eight and nine times in a day, why the size of his audiences is limited only by the size of the halls in which they gather.

First, let it be admitted that Kagawa gives many the glow of having successfully played the philanthropist’s part, for he is at least partly a product of American missionary investment. Second, in a way of which he is quite unaware he feeds the self-esteem of his hearers, for he is understood to be a Japanese who opposes those features of Japanese politics of which the American himself disapproves. Third, he often couches his most radical social ideas in a mystical phraseology which still employs the familiar terms of orthodox piety. Thus the Baptist fundamentalist of the deep South hears Kagawa talking about the Cross, the Saving Blood, or the Atonement and goes away ‘edified,’ while all the time the Japanese evangelist has been trying to drive home a conception of human solidarity, of the necessity of sacrificing the privilege of the few to gain the welfare of the many, which even a Marxist would recognize as proletarian gospel. Fourth, Kagawa carries the prestige of having won a tremendous following. It has been a long time since Western churches have been able to do that; they are pathetically eager to learn the secret of this man from the East. Finally, there is this factor which I have already said is more important than all others — the hope that Kagawa can show the churches how to point society toward fundamental change without at the same time pointing toward civil war.

Having said all this to suggest the importance of Kagawa as missioner to the churches of the West, I realize how utterly I have failed to do justice to him as a person. And yet, had I taken all the space available for such a sketch, could I have made clear the charm of this unassuming, retiring, introspective, intuitive, ascetic, humorous, friendly Japanese? I doubt it. The man so constantly reveals new facets of character, and these are so uniformly disarming, that those who know him best would be first to acknowledge the difficulty of depicting him adequately. Beyond everything else, however, the personal fact about Kagawa which matters most is his persistent identification of himself with the poor. The honors that have come to him, his mingling with t he privileged in many lands, he dismisses lightly as excursions into a foreign realm. It is still the slums to which he must return to be at home. ‘What business have you bringing me here? ’ he demanded of those dining in his honor at Washington’s most glittering hotel. ‘I don’t like this place. I don’t belong here. I belong in the slums.’