2023.06 CASE STUDY: Seikeikai seeking justice and dignity for vulnerable people

I (Stéphan) was privileged to serve on the Governing Board of Seikeikai Social Welfare Institute (in the Hiroshima region) during the past 6 years. From that experience I share the following case study, which forms part of a longer article I wrote, titled Diaconal Church Initiatives and Social/Public Welfare in Postwar Japan: A Descriptive Overview – this article can be accessed HERE

Seikeikai Social Welfare Institute (various photo’s here above)—previously known as Sekeikai Vocational Aid Centre, hereafter referred to as Seikeikai—was started by Rev. Makio Ihara (1926-1994), who suffered from muscular dystrophy that developed when he was 16 years old. Ihara became an RCJ pastor after graduating from Kobe Reformed Theological Seminary, overcoming many challenges as a person living with disability. He began working at RCJ Tadanoumi congregation in 1951. Seven years later he started typewriting with his wife at the church, to earn money for their daughter’s tuition. 

At that time, people with disabilities were generally hidden from the public in Japan. Most people living with disabilities were unable to receive an education until much later (1979), when schools for people with disabilities became mandatory. Many people with disabilities were not actively taken out in public by their families, and often neighbors did not even know of their existence. They were not allowed to get married or have children. Fundamentally, their human dignity was denied. This lack of opportunity to find meaningful work, combined with Ihara’s timely typewriting endeavor that was earning a good income, attracted the attention of people with disabilities in that area and eventually led to Seikeikai’s founding notion: “If there is no place to work, let’s make one ourselves” (Yoshida 2016, p. 24) (my translation).

The National Pension Law came into effect in 1961, and some people living with disabilities intentionally did not work, relying instead on disability pension. However, they wanted to live as active members of society, even if it meant doing basic, menial tasks. Seikeikai was officially established in 1960 as a facility to support the independence of people with disabilities by helping them acquire skills (in the town of Tadanoumi, near Hiroshima). The training program at Seikeikai consisted of three pillars: functional training, vocational aid, and biblical guidance (daily worship). Training began with reading and writing skills, and trainees’ attitudes gradually shifted through the program’s three pillars. The slogan of Seikeikai changed from “I don’t want to be a cripple” to “I want to be a taxpayer”. That was a significant change, which Ihara ascribed to the daily Bible teachings that positively influenced trainees’ attitudes (Seikeikai 2015, p. 62). Missionaries from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Christian Reformed Church (North America) also made constructive contributions to functional training. 

In an empirical study of Rev. Ihara’s (photo here below, with his wife) work, RCJ pastor Hiromu Yamaguchi (2022) focuses on the theology behind his diaconal practices at Seikeikai—as performed by Ihara himself and under his influence—to provide insights into the characteristics of diakonia based on Reformed theology. Yamaguchi explored Ihara’s theology by analyzing his lectures, notes, as well as his (posthumous) book, published at Seikeikai on its 55th anniversary. Furthermore, Yamaguchi conducted 15 (semi-structured and unstructured) interviews with Ihara’s family members, former trainees, and employees that worked alongside with him at Seikeikai.

Ihara has indeed opened the way for many people living with disabilities to become independent, to go out into the world, and even to change their local communities. Yamaguchi (2022, pp. 32-33) highlights two distinctive attitudes of Ihara that were ever-present. One was Ihara’s view of God and people. The other was his unwavering principle-based convictions. His work was based on God’s sovereignty and the gracious election of his people, and his theology was guided by the existential question, “Why and for what purpose do people with disabilities exist?” Ihara accepted his own disability, after a long struggle to find the answer to this question, through the grace of God’s election. He saw the God-given purpose and raison d’etre of people with disabilities in John 9:3: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him”. Ihara (2015, p. 14) phrases the matter as follows: 

It is true that life remains a mystery to us, that God’s acts cannot be measured by our small scale, therefore we cannot fully comprehend His will. But we want to leave everything in God’s hands and entrust our lives to His will. Since our God is the Triune God, it is only natural that He should guide our lives in a way that we cannot grasp, because everything in our lives is included in His plan (my translation).

Furthermore, Ihara strongly believed that God loves us as worthy human beings, created with a purpose in His likeness. He believed God is a God of justice who opposes those who discriminate according to earthly standards. In line with this conviction, Ihara (quoted in Yamaguchi 2022, p. 42) asserted:

When we think of human rights, we always presume the “image of God”. We are to be respected because we bear the image of God. We must correct our views and attitudes toward all people with disabilities. I hesitate to be so explicit, but I am a person living with disability myself, so I often say, “This body (of mine) may be distorted, but the image of God that resides in it, is not broken down.” We would do well to remember this (my translation).

Ihara’s work, seen from the perspective of diakonia, was not merely the work of philanthropic assistance and care. He not only preached about diaconal practices, he also embodied them and served as an advocate on behalf of many vulnerable fellow brothers and sisters. Ihara viewed people with disabilities as prophets who testify to God’s revealed truths with their own bodies. Moreover, Ihara believed that a society in which people with disabilities coexist with able-bodied people as dignified human beings is the ideal society expressing the will of God (Ihara 2015, p. 28).

In Ihara’s lecture transcripts and writings, the concept of diakonia is rarely directly mentioned. However, Ihara’s theology and practice was based on the constructive acceptance of his disability and the embodiment of the characteristics of Biblical diakonia. Ihara divided the work of the church into four categories: worship (leitourgia), witness (marturia), fellowship (koinonia), and service (diakonia). He further asserted that these four dimensions are fulfilled when they are performed in a proper balance (Seikeikai 2015, p. 351). This intricate relation between these four dimensions is affirmed widely today by those who study and practice diakonia intentionally (see, for instance, Nordstokke 2013, pp. 287, 297).

The diakonia based on Reformed theology that was demonstrated through Ihara and Seikeikai was/is not merely loving service for the sake of individuals. It is a diakonia with the broader societal transformation—towards justice and dignity—in its scope, toward the perfection of the Kingdom of God through Christ. Seikeikai trainees, who started to walk as human beings with dignity, began to transcend the barriers that separated them from the community. In recent years the annual Seikeikai Cultural Festival has at times (before the Corona pandemic) attracted more than 1,000 people from the community, having become a beacon of hope that has broken down barriers of societal discrimination against people with disabilities. This broader effect echoes the conviction of Stanard (2015, p. 8) that, “Diakonia, therefore, is not an end in itself, but rather an instrument used by God, together with others, to build an inclusive and just community, an oikos, a household in which the entire creation is included, enjoying the fullness of life intended for all”.

In today’s complex society, welfare services are also required to have a higher level of expertise. With the support of the local community, Seikeikai has gradually transformed into a large welfare institute with many diverse projects (see https://seikeikai.ecweb.jp ). Although today only a handful of its staff are overtly Christian, they are called to Christian Social Welfare work and thereby participate in the building of God’s Kingdom for His glory in their community. The Reformed Church of Japan today continues its close relationship with Seikeikai. Many of its members support Seikeikai’s work financially through church offerings, participate in its activities as volunteers, promoting its diaconal involvement in the region and beyond.

Reference list:

Ihara, Makio. 2015. Ihara Makio Bokushi Ikōshū [Reverend Makio Ihara’s Posthumous Works]. Tadanoumi: Seikeikai Social Welfare Institute Publications.

Nordstokke, Kjell. 2013. Diakonia and Diaconate in the World Council of Churches. International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 13: 286–99. 

Seikeikai. 2015. Seikeikai Jusanjo 55 Shūnen Kinenshi [Seikeikai Vocational Aid Institute 55th Anniversary Publication]. Tadanoumi: Seikeikai Social Welfare Institute Publications.

Stanard, Carlos E. H. 2015. Empowering Diakonia: A Model for Service and Transformation in the Ecumenical Movement and Local Congregations.Ph.D. thesis, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Yamaguchi, Hiromu. 2022. Ihara Makio Bokushi to Seikei Jusanjo no Ayumi no naka ni Shimesareta Kaikakuha Shingaku ni Motodzuku Diakonia[Diakonia based on Reformed Theology, exemplified by the life of Reverend Makio Ihara and Seikeikai Vocational Aid Centre]. Tadanoumi: Seikeikai Social Welfare Institute Publications.

Yoshida, Minoru. 2016. Ai no Waza (Diakonia) ni Ikiru Kyōkai Kōen IIShōgai to Diakonia[The Church Living out Acts of Love (Diakonia) Lecture II: Disability and Diakonia]. Reformed Pamphlet of Kobe Reformed Theological Seminary. Tadanoumi: Seikeikai Social Welfare Institute Publications.