The World Council of Churches (WCC) is remembering the life and commemorating the legacy of Rev. Tsutomu Shoji, former general secretary of the National Christian Council in Japan.
Shoji passed away on 25 August at his home in Tokyo surrounded by his family, with whom he was able to spend the last week of his life. He was 88 years old. A memorial service was held at Kyodan Ohizumi Church in Tokyo, on 31 August. He is survived by his three daughters, Etsuko, Yoshiko and Naoko.
Shoji was born in Kanagawa prefecture in 1932. He graduated from Waseda University, then pursued graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in Tokyo and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He served as pastor to local parishes up to his retirement in 2003.
As a young seminarian in New York during late 1960s, he experienced the churches’ involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the USA, and became devoted to the peace movement in Japan when he returned.
During his term as general secretary of the National Christian Council in Japan from 1978 to 1985, he made ecumenical solidarity for human rights a priority, strengthening ties with the National Council of Churches in Korea in its struggles to defend human rights and promote democratization.
He played a critical role in preparing and hosting the WCC's landmark 1984 Tozanso Consultation on Peace and Justice in northeast Asia. He remained for years an active facilitator of what came to be known as the "Tozanso process" which brought Christians from North and South Korea back together for the first time since the peninsula was divided in 1945.
At home in Japan, he defended the rights of the Korean minority, and sought redress for abuses suffered by the “comfort women” under Japanese colonial rule. He later served as the first chair of the Board of Trustees of the Koryo Museum in Tokyo.
WCC interim general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca reflected that Shoji dedicated much of his life to healing divisions in a way that was rooted in the Gospel. “As we commemorate his life, his legacy is already evident across the world, and we will continue to honor that legacy by protecting one another, and healing our communities,” he said.
Rev. Shoji was also a long-time advocate for denuclearization and protection of the global environment. He was a member of the WCC delegation to the 3rd Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention (1997) on Climate Change in Kyoto. In 2011, he was instrumental in the establishment of a post-tsunami Japan ecumenical response office to aid the victims of that tragedy.
“Shoji-sensei was gentle and soft-spoken but he was a man of conviction,” said Rev. Toshi Yamamoto, former general secretary of the National Christian Council in Japan. “He dedicated his whole life to serving the Lord by working for the oppressed, fighting discrimination, and defending the human rights of those described by Jesus as the ‘least of these’ in our world.”
Former director of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) Dwain Epps said: “Our friend Shoji was a blessing to the churches in Japan but also to the global ecumenical fellowship. May he rest in eternal peace.”
Victor Hsu, former WCC-CCIA executive secretary responsible effort UN/NGO relations, in a condolence message at Shoji’s memorial service, reflected that Shoji was among the very first church leaders from Japan to draw the attention of the Christian Conference of Asia and the WCC to the “comfort women” and Article Nine issues and to request their solidarity. “That he succeeded in moving these ecumenical structures to become involved in these highly controversial matters must be recorded as one of his lasting contributions,” said Hsu. “He was also a visionary who saw that the Tozanso consultation would contribute to Korean unification and peace in northeast Asia. Tozanso set the pathway for the most tenacious ecumenical engagement about the Korean Peninsula, as evidenced in the recent anniversary celebration of a 22 June convocation arranged by the WCC in declaring a People’s Korea Peace Treaty.”