Toyohiko Kagawa: Gandhi of Japan?

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Toyohiko Kagawa.

By Shatrunjay Mall.

Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) was a Japanese social reformer, labor activist and Christian evangelist known as “Japan’s Gandhi.”[1] As a social activist, pacifist and public figure, Kagawa was well-known during his lifetime – both in his home country of Japan as well as in the United States. He was nominated for the Nobel Prizes in literature and peace on numerous occasions.[2] However, today he is a mostly forgotten figure. The Washington National Cathedral has a statue of Kagawa, clad in traditional kimono-like clothing – but most visitors to the site have probably never heard of him, and he is hardly remembered in the United States today.[3] Similarly, although some people in contemporary Japan may recognize his name, he is largely forgotten among his countrymen, decades after his death. Who was this Japanese Christian pacifist and social reformer? What were his achievements and legacies? And did he deserve the title of “Gandhi of Japan”?

Born in the late nineteenth century to a merchant family in the city of Kobe, Kagawa encountered American Presbyterian missionaries as a teenager in rural Tokushima prefecture in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands. Meeting these Christian missionaries piqued the young Kagawa’s interest in Christianity, and he was baptized at the age of sixteen.[4] Fired up by a zeal for evangelism and sympathy for the poor, Kagawa spent his early twenties from 1909 to 1914 as a social worker in the Shinkawa slums in Kobe. Kagawa’s experiences as a social worker in the slums provided the fodder for his semi-autobiographical novel, Shisen o koete (Across the Death Line). First published in serialized form and then as a full-fledged book in 1920, Shisen o koete quickly became a best-seller and cemented Kagawa’s place in the public consciousness of early twentieth century Japan.[5]

Kagawa’s more direct exposure to the West came about when he traveled to the United States for the first time, also as a youth. In 1914, Kagawa enrolled at the Princeton Theological Seminary, motivated by a desire to understand the causes of poverty. On his return to Japan, Kagawa became involved with the labor movement as a labor activist, much more as a reformer than as a revolutionary. Suspicious of communism and left-wing revolutionary violence, Kagawa embraced the burgeoning “cooperatives movement” as a solution to the poverty, inequality, and crises of capitalism of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s.[6] For Kagawa, cooperatives were a solution to the ills of capitalism which would also keep communism at bay.

Closely acquainted with various American Christian missionaries, Kagawa also gained popularity in the West at this time. Kagawa’s American missionary comrades and associates saw him as embodying the same virtues of pacifist non-violence as Gandhi, and thus came to call him the “Gandhi of Japan.”[7] These figures published his work in the United States and translated his writings into English. For his American interlocutors and supporters, Kagawa was an Asian embodiment of their Christian ideals and a Christian equivalent of the non-Christian Gandhi.[8] An Orientalist imaginary fed into this imagery of Kagawa. In commentary of the time, Kagawa was frequently mentioned in the same breath as Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer, the German theologian and philosopher.[9] Indeed, sometimes, Christian missionaries and internationalists exaggerated Kagawa’s importance and whitewashed his image to make him more attractive and appealing in the West.

So, was Kagawa actually the “Gandhi of Japan”? This is a complex question, to which it is difficult to give a simple and straightforward answer. Kagawa was compared to Gandhi for his anti-war views and his work with and sympathy for the poor – values which Gandhi had come to embody in the global imagination of the first half of the twentieth century. And it is true that Kagawa’s politics leaned towards pacifism. In the 1920s, Kagawa expressed anti-imperial and anti-war sentiments. Together with such luminaries of the time as Tagore, Gandhi, Einstein and Romain Rolland, Kagawa signed on to an oath calling for the abolition of conscription, which was presented to the League of Nations.[1-] From the late 1920s and through the early 1930s, as Japan pursued a more militaristic and aggressive foreign policy towards China, Kagawa expressed pacifist views that could be interpreted as disapproval of Japanese imperialism and aggression in China.[11] This is clearly evident in his writings and actions from the time. In 1934, Kagawa famously apologized to the Chinese people for Japanese belligerence. He expressed a similar apology to the Republic of China for the Sino-Japanese War again in 1940, for which he was arrested.[12] In the lead up to the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan, Kagawa worked to develop amity and understanding between the two countries – as their relationship was deteriorating in the run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor – given his close decades-long ties to the United States.

However, Kagawa was not an unqualified pacifist. Neither was he an unequivocal critic of imperialism. In fact, Kagawa occasionally expressed nationalistic and Japan-centric views and shared an ambiguous relationship with Japanese imperialism. This became especially true as Japan became further embroiled in conflict with China in the late 1930s, and with the United States after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Indeed, Kagawa’s criticisms of Japanese militarism and imperialism coincide uneasily with his support for the Japanese imperial project. For example, just like some other Japanese Christian leaders, Kagawa was mobilized by the Japanese state to support Japanese imperialism in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state that had been created in Manchuria in northeastern China.[13] Kagawa led the effort for a Christian pioneer settlement that was built as part of Japanese settler-colonialism in the region.[14] Further, although much hyped up by his supporters as the “Gandhi of Japan”, when Kagawa met the actual Gandhi in 1939 during his travels through India, their meeting was surprisingly contentious on the question of Japanese imperialism and Japan’s war against China.[15] Perhaps even more surprisingly, despite his very close ties to Americans, during the Pacific War when Japan was at war with the United States, Kagawa recorded anti-American radio broadcasts. Indeed, one can say that Kagawa maintained a dual personality – as a pacifist internationalist on the world stage, and as a nationalist who had acquiesced to Japanese imperialism in his home country.

Kagawa also had a complex relationship with race and racism. Kagawa’s racialization as a Japanese and Asian in early twentieth century America stands against the backdrop of his own racist views of the world. In 1935, on one of his trips to the United States, Kagawa was detained by immigration authorities because of an eye infection that he had contracted years earlier while working in the slums of Kobe.[16] The basis for his detention was an anti-immigration law that restricted the entry of foreigners with specific contagious diseases. Indeed, this was an era when immigration of Asians to the United States was severely restricted. Although Kagawa was eventually released thanks to the intervention of his American supporters who appealed directly to U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, American conservatives protested the entry of a “Japanese radical.”[17] Kagawa’s victimization as a Japanese provides a contrast to his own racist ideas and worldviews, which were grounded in the white supremacy of his Western education.[18] Kagawa placed whiteness as the standard to which Japanese people should aspire, since he saw his countrymen as the most “superior” of all the Asians, and he expressed pity on Indians for their “dark skin.”[19] Such a racist and hierarchical perspective of the world was not very uncommon for the time, but it further underlies the liminal position that Japanese occupied in the early twentieth century as simultaneously victims and victimizers of racial supremacy.

Following Japan’s devastating defeat in World War II, the country came under Allied occupation. This was also the time when Kagawa and his reputation were rehabilitated among Americans. Although an especially difficult time for most Japanese, for Kagawa, the American occupation served as an opportune moment to engage in widespread Christian evangelism in the poverty and ruin of post-war Japan.[20] Although American occupiers focused on freedom of religion, and never explicitly stated Christian evangelism as part of their official policy, they created a favorable environment for the spread of Christianity among the Japanese people, something that Kagawa took advantage of. In the early post-war years, Kagawa aspired for Japan to become a peaceful and pacifist society, based on Christianity.[21] The post-war years were also the time that the “Gandhi of Japan” was nominated for the Nobel Prize, although, just like the original Gandhi, he never secured the prize.

To sum up, we can say that American Christian missionaries had weaved together an oversimplified picture of Kagawa to make him seem like Gandhi. Although broadly sympathetic to pacifism and anti-imperialism, Kagawa was too compromised in his ideas and beliefs to be classified as a non-violent political activist. What further complicates the question of whether Kagawa was the “Gandhi of Japan” is that the namesake of the title, Gandhi, was himself not a simple figure. Gandhi’s views were not static, as his own ideas about war, violence, race, caste, and imperialism had evolved over time.[22] Although Gandhi came to be seen as an apostle of non-violence, in his early life, he had actively supported the British in such wars as the Boer War and World War I.[23] Gandhi has increasingly come under criticism for his conservative ideas of race and caste – which have led to anti-racist and anti-caste activists in India, Africa, the United States and other parts of the world abjuring him as any sort of model for their contemporary social movements.[24] While Kagawa is too forgotten of a figure to be a focal point for any contemporary social movement, his imperfections and deviations from anti-war and anti-imperial ideology perhaps place him in a very similar terrain as the namesake for his title as the “Gandhi of Japan.”

[1]Robert Schildgen, “How Race Mattered: Kagawa Toyohiko in the United States,” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 5, no. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1996): 229.

[2]Nomination archive: Toyohiko Kagawa”, Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. (retrieved July 7, 2022).

[3]Bo Tao, “The Chrysanthemum and the “Saint”: Kagawa’s Statue in the Washington National Cathedral”, Church History 89 (2020): 567-568.

[4]Bo Tao, “Imperial Pacifism: Kagawa Toyohiko and Christianity in the Asia-Pacific War,” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2019), 41-42.

[5]Ibid., 48.

[6]Ibid., 90-91.

[7]Ibid., 131-134.


[9]Allan A. Hunter, Three trumpets sound: Kagawa, Gandhi, Schweitzer (New York: Association Press, 1939), 1-2.

[10]Yuzo Ota, “Kagawa Toyohiko: A Pacifist?” in Pacifism in Japan: The Christian and Socialist Tradition, ed. Nobuya Bamba and John F. Howes (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1978), 177.

[11]Ibid., 177-178.

[12]“Gandhi of Japan Put Under Arrest,” The New York Times, September 5, 1940.

[13]Tao, “Imperial Pacifism,” 28.


[15]Ibid., 129-131.

[16]Ibid., 122-123.


[18]Ota, “Kagawa Toyohiko: A Pacifist?”, 193.


[20]Tao, “Imperial Pacifism,” 299-302.


[22]Ramachandra Guha, “The Moral Evolution of Mohandas K. Gandhi,” The Telegraph, January 30, 2021.

[23]Andrew Whitehead, “How India Helped Britain Win Its ‘Dirty’ War,” The Wire, May 31, 2020.

[24]Tamoghna Halder, “Coming to Terms with Gandhi’s complicated legacy,” Al Jazeera, April 7, 2021.