In 1923 one of the greatest earthquake disasters in history hit Japan and reduced Tokyo and Yokohama to smoking ruins. Millions were homeless, starvation, disease and anarchy were the only things flourishing and the government and military could do nothing about it.
They knew a man who could reorganize and restructure things but he was in prison. The common people almost worshiped him but the government, the capitalists, the radical nationalists and the military people hated and feared him. He was in prison for orchestrating a vast non-violent strike in the docks and even though the workers got all that he had demanded for them he himself was thrown into prison for his leadership in the strike action. His name was Toyohiko Kagawa. They let him out of prison and he began the work of rebuilding the nation. The government offered him a huge wage and all the privileges that went with such a role but he turned it all down saying, “To work with the poor I must be poor.”
He was born in 1888, the illegitimate son of a wealthy and high-ranking politician and a geisha. The father took a liking to the child and adopted him but before the boy was five both his parents had died and although he was officially a samurai and head of nearly twenty villages he went to live with his grandmother and a stepmother. The stepmother hated him and his life was one of unrelieved misery until when he was eleven a rich uncle adopted him and planned great things for him. If his stepmother’s house was the frying pan his boarding school was the fire.
But he met and learned English from Henry Myers a Presbyterian minister. He learned more than that—he learned about Christ and Myers baptized Kagawa into Christ. Horace Shipp said, “Young Kagawa became a Christian. He did a rarer thing: he began to practice Christianity.” He was a pacifist to the core, at times he literally turned the other cheek and he insisted on giving away all his possessions and often his food. In 1904 Japan without warning attacked the Russian ships at Port Arthur and destroyed their entire Baltic fleet. Japan as a nation hailed this as a great triumph and justified it on the basis of less obvious but threatening developments in Russian foreign affairs.
At the seminary where he now attended Kagawa dared to speak against Japan’s act of war and the students would take turns to beat him up. Finally he was expelled, he fell ill (tuberculosis) and went away to die in a little fishing village. But a boat was wrecked on the coast and Kagawa worked until he was absolutely exhausted helping to rescue people. This experience made him determined to live and later his stated aim was “The salvation of 100,000 poor, the emancipation of 9,430,000 laborers and the liberation of twenty million tenant-farmers.”
He took a header into the infamous slums at Shinkawa and for nineteen years he lived in a cubicle six feet by six feet, with one side open to act as door and windows. As part of the lowest of the low, even by Shinkawa standards, he shared his living quarters and for four years he held the hand of a murderer that couldn’t sleep alone. He got a little income from a Training school and he doubled it by working as a chimney sweep and gave it away or gave away all the food and clothes it bought.
It was from one of his ceaseless stream of visitors that he contracted a fierce eye disease that moved him closer and closer to blindness.
The slum bullies robbed him with violence, burned down his shack, knocked his teeth out and challenged his faith by demanding that he give away his clothes. He did that on more than one occasion and had to wear a woman’s robe until he could replace them.
Once he was on the verge of taking on a jeering and threatening bully who was going to stop his preaching but instead he turned and ran. The crowd roared with laughter but he was back the next day in the same place preaching Christ.
It’s no surprise then that when the earthquake hit and Japan was in awful need that they let him out of prison and asked him to be Chief of Social Welfare. Once as he visited an American University two students went to hear him speak but when he was done, unimpressed one said to the other, “He didn’t have a lot to say, did he?” A woman behind them leaned over and said, “When you’re hanging on a cross you don’t need to say a lot.” He died in 1960.
Toyohiko Kagawa is one face of God’s love for the world.