Koyama, who taught in the U.S. for 16 years at Union Theological Seminary in New York and was the seminary’s John D. Rockefeller Jr, professor emeritus of ecumenical studies, died aged 79 on March 25 in Springfield, Mass., where members of his family live.
The Japanese academic is perhaps best remembered for his 1974 book, Water Buffalo Theology, whose title underscores Koyama’s belief that the starting point of theology must be people’s own experience. The book emerged from the author’s efforts to communicate the Christian message to farmers in Thailand, who cultivate fields with water buffalo, while he was a missionary and teacher there from 1960 to 1968.
Union seminary’s former president, Donald Shriver Jr. paid tribute to Koyama: “[He] was a master of metaphor, and was always coming up with symbols from Eastern and Western cultures, which he bent to use for insight into contemporary communication of the gospel.”
Shriver recalled how Koyama, then a teenager in Tokyo, had come close to dying in U.S. air raid bombings of the Japanese capital during the World War II.
“Understandably, the Christian minority had hard times in Japan during the war,” Shriver stated, “but etched into [his] memory were the incredibly courageous words spoken to him at his baptism by the pastor of [his] congregation: ‘Kosuke, God calls you in Jesus Christ to love all your neighbors, even the Americans.’ The ‘even’ would become a theological watchword in the rest of his life.”
Koyama, a graduate of Tokyo Union Theological Seminary, later studied in the United States, and eventually earned his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary. He then returned to Asia for his stint as a missionary to the Church of Christ in Thailand.
Through Water Buffalo Theology and other books, Koyama became known as an advocate for an Asian theology.
In 1980, he addressed a World Council of Churches’ mission and evangelism conference in Melbourne, Australia, where he noted that historically Jesus Christ had been presented to the world “in the mould of the mind of the West.”
Koyama said that such theologies, “have had more than one hundred years of painful irrelevance to the world outside of the West, and most likely to the West itself. Even today, most of the world’s Christians, including their theologians, believe that somehow Jesus Christ is more present in America than in Bangladesh.”
In 1980, and prior to his appointment at Union seminary, Koyama taught at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Still, in Asia, he was perhaps best known for his tenure, beginning in 1968, as dean of the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology in Singapore.
“With his deep insights and gentle heart, his achievements that showed Christ living among people in the world, especially in Asia, had impacts on many people in the world. We are sincerely grateful for his worldwide work for many years,” Isamu Koshiishi, moderator of the National Christian Council in Japan, told Ecumenical News International.
In his tribute to Koyama, Union’s Shriver recalled his first experience with Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology.
“I will always remember with humor the fact that in the summer of 1979 the acquisitions staff of the Union library had a book sent by a publisher entitled, Water Buffalo Theology. I suppose that the staff assumed that Union had no program for teaching theology to buffaloes, for the book landed on a discard shelf outside the library door. Very soon after, Union announced that the author of that book was our new professor of World Christianity. The staff quickly recovered the volume and catalogued it.”
Koyama’s latest book in Japanese, Theology and Violence: Towards a Theology of Non-violent Love is due to be published by Kyobunkwan, a Christian publishing company in Tokyo, on 22 April.