Texte auf Englisch

The japanese Raiffeisen

It was in the year that Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen died, that a man was born who walked in his footsteps: Toyohiko Kagawa (1888–1960).

Text: Toru Hijikata


Japan in 1909: more and more people are migrating from impoverished rural areas into the towns, where the population is rapidly rising. Slum areas and shanty towns appear, there is a lack of hygiene, epidemics break out. That summer it affected Toyohiko Kagawa, who fell seriously ill with tuberculosis at the age of 19. Before that he had already suffered misfortune and deprivation; his parents died when he was four years old. The relatives who brought him up abused him with beatings. He suffered harsh punishments, so-called dark detention, brutality and bouts of temper. “Tears are bitter food,” he was later to write about his childhood.

On his sickbed, having difficulty breathing and close to death, Kagawa made a decision. “If I get well again, I will definitely go into the slums of Kobe and offer myself as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the poor.” It was this thought that brought him back to life. “I felt within me the conviction that God had entrusted me with the task to make the spirit of Jesus a reality through work among the poor, and that it was for this that I was able to escape death.” It seemed to him “as if I had leapt over death and was throwing myself into the world of miracles and mysteries”.

During his time at school Kagawa had broken with the family tradition of Shintoism and became an evangelical Christian, but then in 1909 he reached a further turning point in his life. He moved into the slums of his hometown of Kobe in order to fight on the side of the weak against the social evils that brought them to that state of weakness. Driven by his faith he dedicated himself to the aim of overcoming hardship and misery and to stand up for the beggars, the destitute, the workers and peasant farmers. In the system of co-operatives and their democratic principles of solidarity he saw a means of achieving this aim. “The co-operative system is active Christianity”, according to Kagawa. He followed the example of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, whose system of credit unions had become known in Japan around the turn of the century, following campaigns for the modernisation of Japan along the lines of Europe and the USA. This was propagated by the Japanese government under the slogan “Civilisation and Enlightenment” and heralded the political and social transformation of Japan and the opening up of the country towards the West.

But Kagawa went a step further: he wanted to create a state in which co-operatives made up the whole of the banking sector – worldwide. Kagawa wanted to found international co-operatives in order to combat poverty and to work towards a caring society based on solidarity and bringing peace. Kagawa described his ideas in around 300 works, which gained him considerable recognition: from 1954 to 1956 and again in 1960 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and in addition in 1947 and 1948 for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Evangelical Church in Germany has designated 24th April as his commemoration day in the Evangelical calendar of famous names.

Time in the USA

Kagawa worked for around 15 years in the slums of the harbour city of Kobe. He founded schools, hospitals and churches. “Kagawa visited the sick, comforted those laden with cares, fed the hungry and gave a home to the homeless”, wrote his biographer Carl Heinz Kurz: “He was an older brother to prostitutes, he visited them when they were ill, and brought them medicine.“ At the same time Kagawa certainly noted that the poor could find no way out of their misery and that they easily fell prey to pawnbrokers and moneylenders and their greed for profit. The sober assessment of Kagawa was that poverty reproduces itself. But how to combat this?

In order to research the question academically, Kagawa moved to the USA for a two-year stay at Princeton University. It was there that he published “Researches into the psychology of the poor”, in which he described life in the slums, which was hitherto largely unknown to the Japanese middle classes. Kagawa established contacts with the Trades Unions and intensified these after his return to Japan. “If Suzuki is the father of the Workers Movement in Japan, then Kagawa is the mother – his heart, his soul, his empathy, his understanding for the workers were those of a mother – a wise mother”, wrote his biographer Carl Heinz Kurz.

Twice, in 1921 and 1922, Kagawa was arrested for his involvement in strikes. When these activities became too radical for him, he turned away from the Trades Union movement in the 1920s and towards the peasant farmers movement. He founded farmers’ associations and credit unions, in order to confront poverty in the countryside. He dealt out sharp criticism of the reckless pursuit of profit, which only looks for one’s own advantage and tries to maximise this. Kagawa set against this the solidarity principle of the co-operatives, based on mutual help and brotherhood. In order to spread his ideas more widely, Kagawa gave numerous lectures in Japan and also in the USA, where a new direction for economic policy was to be introduced by the Roosevelt government following the world economic crisis and the Great Depression (1929/30).

Co-operatives are not an end in themselves

During his six month stay in the USA in the winter of 1935/36 he gave more than 500 lectures. They formed the basis for his ground-breaking book “Brotherhood Economics” which appeared in 1936 and was published in 26 countries and 18 languages. In it, Kagawa described co-operatives as democratic collectives, guaranteeing mutual help and self-governing autonomy. For Kagawa, such a co-operative association did not exist just for itself, i.e. not just an end in itself, but was there to serve humanity – and must be based on love.

This vision of the Christian reformer clashed, of course, with the reality of utter poverty and misery, the sickness and violence to be found not only in Japan but worldwide. As a devout Christian Kagawa put the theodicy question: why does evil exist at all? Why does God permit it? He found the answers in the death of Jesus on the cross, through which evil was overcome. Kagawa rejected an “emotional Christianity” which is purely an internal matter of the faith of an individual. No, Jesus was crucified for the redemption of the whole of humanity including economic interests. For this reason, whoever followed Christ may not ignore secular economic life because otherwise a “situation suffering partial paralysis through religion” would prevail.  Trying to separate society and history from each other, as well as religion and economics, can never be right in Kagawa’s view. Christianity is inconsistent if it is not part of the shaping of the economic order. This approach characterises his theology and his economic theory, in which co-operatives play a key role.

Kagawa divided co-operatives into seven categories. The basis for this was “seven principles of economic values”, which he drew from the New Testament and designated as “Jesus’ own principles for the welfare state”:

  1. Insurance societies in accordance with the principle of the value of life
  2. Production co-operatives in accordance with the principle of the value of work (agricultural and factory production co-operatives)
  3. Marketing co-operatives in accordance with the principle of the value of exchange
  4. Credit unions in accordance with the principle of the value of growth
  5. Mutual benevolent societies in accordance with the principle of the value of choice (mutual assistance for education and unemployment)
  6. Supply chain co-operatives in accordance with the principle of legal values (utility supply co-operatives for electricity, gas, water, transport etc)
  7. Consumer co-operatives in accordance with the principle of the value of the objective.

Kagawa’s assumption was that the seven types of co-operative would only develop their ways of working when they had formulated their economic life as a whole and finalised everything to complement that. He recommended that churches should also support co-operatives in the framework of their own economic activity. Kagawa spoke of a “movement for the Kingdom of God”, in which both Catholics and Protestants would join forces – a view that from his point of view corresponded to the “International Missionary Council” (IMC). This had been developed by Protestant denominations in the years after 1910 and was integrated into the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1961.

Plans for a co-operative state

Kagawa was actively involved in 1947 in the founding of the “World Federalist Movement”, which today has an advisory status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. He chaired the Asia Conference of the World Federalists which took place in 1952 – only one post among many aimed at strengthening world federalism and working for peace. His activities were aimed at the foundation of a co-operatively organised state, in which the differences between rich and poor would be cancelled out. This would be established and governed according to Christian principles.

In all his activities Kagawa, especially after the experiences of the Second World War, had in mind the creation of a worldwide framework for peace. “If we leave economic activities as they are now, world peace will never be established”, writes Kagawa in a newspaper article. Religion also has to make its contribution, in which it calls upon its basic values. “Peace will only come when a consciousness of the reconciling love that is revealed on the cross, in conjunction with the brotherly relationships revealed in the co-operative movement, penetrates through into the international economy”. There then follows Kagawa’s urgent appeal to “turn the global economic system” into “a co-operative”. If this goal is achieved “we will be able to affirm that we have laid down the only solid foundation for the establishment of world peace”.

About the author

Toru Hijikata, born 1956 in Tokyo is professor of sociology at the Seigakuin University in Saitama, Japan. Recently published in Germany by him: “Positive law as a social phenomenon” (Duncker & Humblot, 2013).

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