Japan’s parachurch pioneers

This article introduces Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) and the work of the Friends of Jesus, a parachurch group founded in 1921.

Kagawa was born in Kobe to a wealthy merchant-bureaucrat and his geisha second wife. His father and mother died when he was four, so he was sent to live in Shikoku with his father’s first wife. Kagawa endured a lonely childhood, finding solace in the countryside’s natural beauty. He moved to Tokushima for middle school, boarding in a dormitory operated by a Japanese Christian. He met Southern Presbyterian missionaries Dr. Charles A. Logan and Dr. Harry A. Meyers in Tokushima when he attended church and English Bible classes. It was also where he encountered in the Bible a heavenly Father that cared for the lilies of the field, and for him. During this period, his family went bankrupt, so he moved in with his wealthy uncle. When Kagawa chose to be baptized at 15, his uncle, having no use for foreign religion, threw him out of the house. Logan and Meyers took Kagawa in, helped pay for his schooling, and remained his lifelong supporters and friends.

While on holiday from university in 1909, Kagawa preached enthusiastically in the streets of the God of love he had experienced. He didn’t stop until he collapsed, wracked by tubercular pneumonia. Lying on his deathbed, Kagawa prayed, saw a vision of light, coughed up clotted blood, and began to recover. His already dramatic life then took a significant turn.

On Christmas Eve that year, the 21-year-old Kagawa moved out of his dormitory at Kobe Seminary and into the nearby Shinkawa slums. Kagawa practiced incarnational ministry there (ministering to a group while living among them). He ministered amidst laborers, prostitutes, ruffians, and the sick and injured, all of whom were marginalised in Japan’s rapid industrialization. His autobiographical novel recounting these days, Crossing the Death Line (1920), sold a million copies. It brought public attention to the plight of the slum dwellers and made Kagawa a household name.

Finding that merely feeding and caring for the poor without changing their environment was inadequate, Kagawa led labor, farmer, and suffrage movements, spending time in jail for his efforts, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Realizing that change must come from the bottom up, Kagawa started cooperatives and credit unions, where members pooled their resources for the common good. However, as Kagawa saw his non-violent labor and farmer movements hijacked by Marxist teaching, he decided to return to his first calling: working for spiritual transformation.

The Friends of Jesus

Kagawa did not work alone. A year after entering the slums, he founded the Kyūrei Dan (Band of Salvation), men influenced by Kagawa who shared their goods and worked and prayed together. Ten years later, in 1921, after a time of earnest prayer, Kagawa, his wife Haru, and thirteen pastors formed what would become one of Japan’s most effective parachurch organizations: the Friends of Jesus. Kagawa, well-read in church history, modeled the new quasi-monastic group on the Third Order of Franciscans: communities of married or single lay people that live simply, serve the poor, and do not bear arms. The Friends of Jesus sought to incorporate the spiritual discipline of the Jesuits, the preaching mission of the Dominicans, John Wesley’s Methodism, and the Salvation Army’s hands-on activism. Jesus’ command became their watchword: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:12-14 NIV).

Members committed themselves to five principles:

  1. Piety: devotion to God in Christ. Members met regularly to pray and read the Bible and devotional classics.
  2. Work: of mind and hand. Becoming a friend of the poor. Following Jesus, the carpenter, who modeled and sanctified labor.
  3. Purity: in personal life and war on vice and liquor. Kagawa was a leader in the fight to end Japan’s licensed prostitution.
  4. Peace: including opposing war.
  5. Service: social, religious, and political.

The Friends of Jesus chose no leader or committee, and made no specific action plan. But they met a felt need. Within a year, over 500 members from Hokkaido to Kyushu and from all walks of life had joined. Kagawa’s books, reputation, and ‘Pillar of Cloud’ newsletter sped this growth. The vision, initiative, talents, and teamwork of collaborators turned these ideals into reality. The Friends of Jesus established settlements or facilities in poorer communities that housed schools, medical clinics, consumer cooperatives, and labor union offices. Settlements kept prayer and Bible study at the heart of their work for social welfare. Kagawa poured the significant royalties from his books back into the settlements and other projects. His wife served faithfully alongside—caring for their three children, managing her quick-to-give husband’s finances, and finding ways to respond to the many needs.

Although critical of churches’ inward-looking stance and what he saw as greater concern for building steeples than transforming society, Kagawa preached and lectured in packed churches and lecture halls throughout Japan. He presented Christianity in the language of the people—illustrating his messages with examples from his own life, current events, science, and history. Writing on large sheets of paper as he spoke, Kagawa made points with words, pictures, maps, and statistics. During his life, hardly a church in Japan was without at least one member influenced for Christ by Kagawa. Today, when I mention Kagawa to Japanese Christians over the age of eighty, many recall having heard him speak.

The Friends of Jesus brought together Christians from different churches for charity and evangelical work. Following the 1923 Kanto Earthquake, the Friends of Jesus were the first on the scene, leading relief efforts, rallying Christians and challenging Buddhist priests to help. As the situation stabilized, Friends of Jesus members prayed together in the rubble and preached hope to the devastated residents.

Today, the playing field has shifted. Disasters still strike, and Christians come together to provide relief, but government-provided social welfare has largely replaced Kagawa’s settlements and other projects. Christians and others work to prevent suicide, provide meals to the homeless and to some of the 16.3% of children living in poverty, and reach out in countless ways.1 The struggles faced and approaches taken by our predecessors instruct and challenge us today. Kagawa would applaud and advise: Work with friends. Start with prayer. Involve others. Meet felt needs. Network. Keep a broad, eclectic, historical, perspective. Know your audience. Speak their language. Use your expertise. Keep on learning.

1. Mizuho Aoki, “Children in Japan struggle to break out of the poverty cycle,” The Japan Times, January 4, 2017. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/01/04/national/social-issues/children-japan-struggle-break-poverty-cycle/

Photo from the Kagawa Toyohiko Memorial Matsuzawa Archives

Brian Byrd, in Japan since 1984, wrote his dissertation on Kagawa. He teaches English at Seigakuin Primary School, Introduction to Christianity at Aoyama Gakuin, and English Bible classes (brian.aez.jp).

John P. Loucky, in Japan since 1987, teaches at Seinan Jogakuin in Kita-Kyushu. His website includes information on Kagawa and teaching English (CALL4ALL.us).

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