U.S.-Japan Prewar Missionary Internationalism

Here’s a nice bit of historical revisionism from Robert Shaffer, “A Missionary from the East to Western Pagans”: Kagawa Toyohiko’s 1936 U.S. Tour, in Journal of World History 24 (2013): 579-583 (Project MUSE subscription required):

In order to explain how World War II in the Pacific between the Americans and the Japanese became so infused with racial hatred, John Dower in 1986 characterized their prior interactions as a virtually unrelieved set of hostilities, misunderstandings, and worse. Walter LaFeber’s more narrowly political analysis showed some elements of sympathy at times between the two nations, though very few between 1920 and 1945, and he expressed clearly his thesis about such relations in his book’s title: The Clash. While compelling in many respects, and certainly influential, the perspectives of Dower and LaFeber downplay, especially for the interwar years, the respect that some people in each society had for those in the other. Recent historians have sought to fill in these gaps, bringing to light, for example, the enthusiasm with which Americans greeted the first ambassadors from Japan in 1860 as they toured the United States, and the respect that many American missionaries in Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century had for both Japanese tradition and its embrace of modernity. Although Kagawa’s 1936 visit could not forestall the growth of tensions between the two nations that soon led to World War II, this study demonstrates that a tradition of friendship persisted between elements of both nations within the more dominant atmosphere of mistrust and hatred.

World history as a discipline has been developing in tandem with the “internationalization of U.S. history,” an effort to show, among other things, how events and ideas that developed outside of the United States affected this nation. Daniel Rodgers, for example, has shown that many of the reforms in the United States from the Progressive Era and the New Deal developed first in Europe, and he explains how Americans traveling or working in Europe or meeting with European visitors adapted these ideas for implementation in the United States. Thomas Bender has extended geographically the study of such interconnections in reform movements to Asia and Latin America, but his treatment of the 1930s is merely suggestive. Kagawa’s economic reformism manifested itself by the mid 1930s primarily in building producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives in Japan, and the Protestants who sponsored his 1936 visit to the United States sought to use his knowledge and his prestige to stimulate the development of such co-ops in this nation. Thus, an analysis of his visit deepens our understanding of the interaction between American and foreign reform movements in the case of economic cooperatives, and highlights this oft-neglected effort during the Depression to fashion what its backers conceived of as a Christian economic order distinct from both capitalism and communism.

Kagawa’s visit to the United States also challenges us to look more closely at American involvement in missionary activity. In her recent survey of the historical literature on American overseas missionary activities, Dana Robert pointed to the interpretive sea change that occurred in the 1960s. By the end of that turbulent decade, she notes, “there was scarcely a work written on American Protestant missions that did not focus on their role in promoting imperialism.” However, Robert emphasizes that much of the most recent work, from the 1980s onward, sees “the significance of missions for American history … in international relationships,” in how indigenous peoples and religions shaped American Protestant mission work, and not just the other way around. In a study of the impact that American overseas missionaries had on U.S. society, Daniel Bays and Grant Wacker also reject the 1960s paradigm, suggesting that many missionaries spurred “self-reflection and self-criticism” about American society itself, and helped “their compatriots to see the United States as outsiders saw it.”

An examination of Kagawa’s under-studied U.S. tour corroborates the analyses of Robert, Bays, and Wacker that in some cases the missionary enterprise did not support American empire or the ideology that the United States and the West had the unquestioned right and obligation to inculcate religious truth and civilization on others. Indeed, this investigation reveals an instance in which American Protestants wanted their compatriots to learn from a foreigner—indeed, from someone from a predominantly non-Christian land—and from someone who had previously made well-publicized and highly critical comments about the United States. Those Americans responsible for planning Kagawa’s tour, including many with long experience as missionaries, had become what I have elsewhere called “critical internationalists”—Americans who believed that in order to engage productively with others a critical approach toward the American role in the world had become necessary. Thus, this study provides background for David Hollinger’s recent argument that ecumenical Protestantism in the United States, bolstered by its encounters with predominantly non-Christian peoples, became after 1945 an important proponent of anti-racist and multicultural perspectives in both the domestic and international spheres.

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1 Comment

Filed under Japan, nationalism, NGOs, religion, U.S., war

One response to “U.S.-Japan Prewar Missionary Internationalism

  1. Is this an example of revisionist history, or evidence that modern views of the western missionary experience in Asia have been couched in political science terms of the moment that obscured the great works that missionaries accomplished in Asia? I went to Korea with what I like to term as the James A. Michener view of missionaries in the Pacific and Asia. I.e, that of hide-bound religious bigots out to bring the supposed word of their god to the ignorant natives. What I discovered, of course, was that these missionaries had arrived in their respective countries armed with more than divinity degrees. They set up hospitals, nursing schools, universities, and even got involved in Late Choeson dynasty attempts to modernize Korean education. In doing so, they had to learn the local language. I had the opportunity in Korea to meet two Linton brothers, both of whom could speak, read and write Korean as well as they could English. And one of whom had passed his Korean Medical Board examination in Korean. They,as well as some other prominent Americans living n Korea, were descended from missionaries. I still love Michener for his lyrical description of exotic locales and peoples, but I now see the clear difference between history and historical fiction. Just as there is political science and political fiction, the latter being larely polemical.

    You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the positive contributions that American missionaries made in the countries they took up residence in. Vietnam’s Quoc Ngu alphabet is a prime example. It was developed long before the French ever arrived, contributed to the development of modern Vietnamese nationalism, and was made official by none other than Ho Chi Minh himself.

    By the way, there were other types of missionaries, especially medical ones. Despite Vietnam’s tumultuous relations with the French over the first half of the 20th Century, the names of three French medical pioneers, two of whom held French military appointments, admittedly only to pay them while they worked for the Pasteur Institute, have always remained on Saigon streets: They are Pasteur, Calmette, and Yersin.

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