Andrew T. McDonald, Verlaine Stoner McDonald. Paul Rusch in Postwar Japan: Evangelism, Rural Development, and the Battle against Communism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. 288 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-7607-9.
Reviewed by Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci (Stanford University)
Published on H-Diplo (June, 2019)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Paul Frederick Rusch was an American Episcopalian missionary, army officer, and social entrepreneur who spent much of his life in Japan with the goal to implant the spirit of Christian democracy there during the tumultuous twentieth century. He left lasting legacies in Japan, not necessarily in religious ways, but mostly in the practical fields of agricultural development, international aid, and sports. Rusch is perhaps mostly remembered in Japan as the “Father of [American] Football,” but his legacy also lives on in the form of the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project (KEEP), a rural development and self-help program to aid Japan’s impoverished highland residents.
Journalist and scholar couple Andrew T. McDonald and Verlaine Stoner McDonald depict the extraordinary and complicated life story of Paul Rusch in their new book, Paul Rusch in Postwar Japan: Evangelism, Rural Development, and the Battle against Communism. A few biographies about Rusch have already appeared, namely Elizabeth Anne Hemphill’s The Road to KEEP: The Story of Paul Rusch in Japan (1970) and Toshiyuki Ijiri’s Paul Rusch: The Story of KEEP and What a Man with Vision Can Do (1991). Hemphill was a close friend and supporter of Rusch, and Ijiri was a journalist for the local newspaper Yamanashi Nichi Nichi Shimbun, who wrote a series on Rusch’s story that he then developed into a book (originally published in Japanese in 1986). Both biographies provide a detailed, yet unfootnoted, narrative of Rusch’s work in Japan, mostly revolving around his role in founding and running KEEP. The McDonalds’ account, on the other hand, places Rusch in a broader context of US-Japan relations, surrounding the period of Japan’s entry to the Pacific War and the US fight against communism. It is both readable for the general audience as a biography of a historically significant—although not necessarily widely known—figure, and informative for scholars interested in Japanese modern history, US diplomatic history, and the history of international relations.
Rusch first headed to Japan from Louisville, Kentucky, in 1925 to help the YMCA reconstruct its facilities after the Great Kanto Earthquake. What started as a one-year mission turned into a lifelong commitment to serve the Japan Episcopal Church through the Brotherhood of St. Andrews (BSA) Japan, which Rusch founded in 1927 at Rikkyo (St. Paul’s) University, where he taught as a business instructor. After the war, BSA became the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project (KEEP) to create a more secular appeal. Despite his lack of a college degree and a command of Japanese, the “combination of charm and his can-do persona” (p. 202) led him up the social ladder to a cadre of influential people in Japan, including Rudolf Teusler, Episcopalian director of the St. Luke International Hospital in Tokyo, and diplomat Renzo Sawada and his wife, Miki Sawada, heir to the Iwasaki fortune. In enlisting Rusch for fundraising projects at St. Luke, Teusler introduced Rusch to some of the wealthiest families in America. The Swadas also became generous benefactors in realizing Rusch’s plan to build a Christian youth camp, named the Seisen-Ryo (“pure spring hostel”), near the highland village of Kiyosato. Seisen-Ryo would become the hub for rural development projects in which Rusch would implement his vision of “practical Christianity” (p. 26), an idea inherited from Teusler. Another major ideological impact that both Teusler and Renzo Sawada had on Rusch, according to the authors, was the stern opposition to communism. Rusch’s main purpose for the youth training programs was to shield the young Japanese from “radical ideologies” (p. 29).
The title of the book, Paul Rusch in Postwar Japan, could be misleading because the authors devote almost half of the book to Rusch’s prewar and wartime activities in Japan. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of Rusch’s life story, especially for those interested in world politics and international relations, may be his precarious situation during the imperial rivalries between the United States and Japan in the 1940s. Based on his trip to China in 1939 on Renzo Sawada’s invitation, Rusch came to defend Japan’s expansionism in Manchuria, even in light of reports of Japanese atrocities in China. Despite deteriorating US-Japan relations, Rusch remained in Japan until he became the last American Episcopal missionary left there and was finally arrested on December 9, 1941, as an enemy of Japan, then deported back to the United States. His wartime experience may be an important example of individuals seeking to find “roads to peace,” rather than a singular and inevitable “road to war.”
While he presented himself as an idealist and pacifist, Rusch was also extremely practical and flexible according to changing circumstances. After returning to the United States, to the dismay of some of his Japanese friends and former students, he served in the US Army Military Intelligence Service during the war. His assigned roles were to help recruit Japanese Americans (Nisei) for the army’s language school and to educate army officers about Japan and the Nisei soldiers they would command. Rusch had already had years of experience of guiding and training young Nisei in Japan at BSA and Rikkyo University. Rusch stressed the individuality of Nisei volunteers and allegedly denounced the racial intolerance of the US president, Congress, and the public. At the same time, he expressed stereotypes of Japanese soldiers as invaders and portrayed the Pacific War as a “do-or-die racial showdown” (p. 99).
Soon after the war, Rusch returned to Japan and served in the Allied Occupation as an intelligence officer. As one of the “Japan experts” (p. 113), Rusch played an important, even though peripheral, role in the discussion and decision to keep Emperor Hirohito on the throne, arguing that the emperor was simply misled and deceived by military fanatics. Rusch was promoted to lieutenant colonel as America entered the Cold War and fighting communism became a top priority among Occupation goals. Rusch wielded his increasing power and authority for both humanitarian and morally questionable causes. He diverted army resources to aid his friend Miki Sawada’s cause to feed abandoned mixed-race children. On the other hand, he allowed the alleged kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment to happen at the Iwasaki mansion, which was also used as the headquarters of the Episcopal Church of Japan, even though there is no evidence that he was directly involved in the scandal. “In his zeal to combat Communism in Japan,” the McDonalds write, “Rusch was … all too willing to trade with the devil, even the good name of his church, if it protected American interests” (p. 134).
The McDonalds describe Rusch’s conflicting positions and flexible thinking as “a very American kind of moral duality” (p. 200). In Rusch’s mind, there usually was a logic behind the seemingly contradictory actions; his main goal was to guide the Japanese toward the ideal of Christian democracy. He supported Japan’s expansionism in Manchuria because he believed that the military’s motivation was to prevent the spread of communism in the region. His decision to join the US Army and support America’s war endeavors, as he explained to his Japanese friends, was to end the war quickly and to return to Japan to help redirect the country toward the path of democracy. He used his power as intelligence officer during the Occupation to correct Japan’s “democracy led astray” (p. 116) by right-wing militarists, while also protecting the war-devastated country against the infiltration of communism, which he considered as the antithesis of Christian democracy.
The McDonalds’ story about Paul Rusch thus sheds light on the question of how democracy works in non-Western, non-Christian nations—or, more accurately, how its promoters thought it worked. Rusch firmly believed that (Western) democracy was rooted in Christianity. General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), also shared this conviction, even though he would modify his views towards the end of the Occupation. He told Protestant leaders in Japan, including Rusch, in the fall of 1945: “Japan is a spiritual vacuum. If you do not fill it with Christianity, it will be filled with Communism.” Yet, SCAP’s overall policy guaranteed religious freedom and the separation of state and religion. MacArthur himself would gradually admit that Japan would not be Christianized in the foreseeable future, but that the Buddhists and Shinto priests seemed to accept the basic principles of democracy. The McDonalds also conclude that Rusch’s linking of democracy to Christianity had been proven wrong: “Over seventy years after the first postwar election, democracy endures in Japan, whereas Christianity has withered” (p. 214).
Nonetheless, Rusch probably determined that his mission of “making Christian democracy work” (p. 152) in Japan was successful, measured by the enduring legacy of KEEP and other projects he initiated. Even though he associated with the most politically and financially powerful people, his “people-to-people approach” (p. 208) in promoting Christian democracy, he believed, was key to having the Japanese people accept and inherit his endeavors. Rusch described his work in Japan in a pithy phrase: “democracy in kimono”—exporting the “American know-how idea” and putting it in “local, native dress” (p. 181). This expression reflected his firm belief in America’s role as a moral leader of the world.
At the same time, the McDonalds explain that Rusch’s portrayal of a “supposedly ‘new and improved,’ Americanized version of Japan” during the postwar period was part of his fund-raising strategy of playing into common stereotypes and prejudices held by many Americans (p. 213). The authors also admit that Rusch “misread the Japanese people and the value they placed on their culture” and that he overlooked the fact that many were annoyed at the suggestion that they needed to be “taught” democracy (p. 214).
Yet we gain only a partial picture of Japanese responses to Rusch and his projects from the book, as the authors narrate Rusch’s story mostly through his perspective—and his language. They rely exclusively on English-language sources, and there are few actual voices and stories of the various Japanese people involved in his life, with the exception of Ryo Natori, Rusch’s “surrogate son and protégé” (p. 155) in managing and operating KEEP. Natori passed away in 1976, but the authors’ interviews with Natori’s wife and daughter add a valuable personal story to the account of Rusch’s impact in Japan. Natori’s story, however, was exceptional, in that he symbolized Rusch’s grand aspirations for youths in Japan. The response of local residents to Rusch’s rural development projects would likely have been quite different. In fact, the authors note how the Japanese staffers at KEEP were sometimes ridiculed by locals for standing by the “red-headed foreigner” (p. 174).
Another group that had been a major part of Rusch’s work in Japan but whose individual experiences and thoughts we hear little about in the book is the Nisei he taught and trained. Several names appear in the book, including Daisuke Kitagawa, who expressed mixed emotions about Rusch’s new role in the US Army when he reencountered him in the army’s language camp. Considering that Rusch had a significant impact on many Nisei’s lives, notably by creating a Nisei football team and popularizing the sport in prewar Japan, their voices could surely provide an additional layer to Rusch’s multifaceted legacy in Japan.
Andrew McDonald and Verlaine McDonald’s portrayal of Paul Rusch’s life story is more than just a biography—it also helps readers understand larger questions about American roles abroad. Rusch’s work in Japan represented US imperialism in all its guises: militarism, religion, sports, and (agricultural) technology. Through Rusch’s personal journey, we can learn the potential, limits, and challenges of international aid and people-to-people diplomacy.
. Toshiyuki Ijiri, Paul Rusch: The Story of KEEP and What a Man with Vision Can Do (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement Publications, 1991), 69.
. Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 31.
. Paul Rusch’s comments, quoted in William P. Woodward, The Allied Occupation of Japan and Japanese Religions (Leiden: Brill, 1972), 243.
. Ibid., 351.
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Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci. Review of McDonald, Andrew T.; McDonald, Verlaine Stoner, Paul Rusch in Postwar Japan: Evangelism, Rural Development, and the Battle against Communism.
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