The Foundation for Theological Education in South East Asia



Executive Director office:
Balmatta, Mangalore 575 002
Tel. No: +91 824 243 3838

Tributes to Honorary Trustee Kosuke Koyama


FROM FTESEA HONORARY TRUSTEE, MARVIN D. HOFF, Executive Director of the FTESEA from 1977 to 2006


I first met Kosuke Koyama (Ko) in the Barber Shop in the YMCA in Hong Kong around 1970. We were both in a barber chair. Although I had never met Ko, I knew about him from his creative theological writings and from the fact that he was married to my wife's cousin. From several things he said, I guessed that it was Ko in the barber chair next to me. It helped that I knew he would be attending the same meeting I came to Hong Kong to attend: a planning meeting for an ecumenical seminary in Hong Kong. Ko, surprised that I had knew his name, graciously greeted me. We have been colleagues in ministry for theological education in South East Asia and China since that chance meeting.

Ko miraculously survived the USA bombing of Tokyo between 1941-1945. He read Pilgrim's Progress during this time as the bombs rained down every night. "…somehow the idea that our life, personally and collectively, must be a movement toward God survived in my soul".(1) Ko was born into a Christian family since his paternal Grandfather had become a Christian . He encouraged Ko to read the Bible. When Ko was baptized, the Minister …"who baptized me told me that the God of the Bible is concerned about the well being of all nations, even including Japan and America".(2)

After graduating from Union Theological Seminary in Tokyo, Ko came to the United States to study theology. He first studied at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey and then transferred to Princeton Theological Seminary. His doctoral thesis examined Luther's interpretation of the Psalms.

At Princeton, Ko met and married Lois Rozendaal. She had just returned from spending five years in India as a missionary of the Reformed Church in America. They have three children: James, who lives with his wife and children in Honolulu; Elizabeth, who lives with her husband and children in Moscow; and Mark, who lives with his wife and children in Western Massachusetts. His grand children are named: Matthew, Isabel, Sophie, Amos and Silas.

After Ko finished his doctoral studies at Princeton, Lois and he were appointed as missionaries to Thailand by the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan). After a year of language study, they were assigned to the Thailand Theological Seminary in Chiengmai.

Quickly Ko was faced with a dilemma. What was the relevance of Wittenberg to Chiengmai? Stimulated by his guru, the Rev. Shoki Coe from Taiwan who was the creative pioneer in contextualizing theology for the Asian context, Ko worked through this dilemma which stimulated Ko's theological thinking for the rest of his life. The first major product of this dilemma was Waterbuffalo Theology (corrected in the 25th anniversary edition to Water Buffalo Theology) about which Ko wrote: "It doesn't feel right, but English is not my first language."(1) The essays were written for the Thai farmer with Tokyo and Princeton in the background. The book was an instant success. Some were confused by Ko's unique title. The librarian at Union Seminary, New York, where Ko would eventually teach, did not place the book in their collection "because they had no theology for buffalos".

Ko wrote the book in poetic not academic language. He said that he was inspired to write as he listened to the "fugue of the bullfrogs" while watching farmers working with buffalos in the rich fields. "The buffalos tell me that I must preach to these farmers in the simplest sentence structure," he wrote. "They remind me to discard all the abstract ideas and to use exclusively objects that are immediately tangible. 'Sticky rice,' 'banana,' 'pepper,' 'dog,' 'cat,' 'bicycle,' 'rainy season,' 'leaking house,' 'fishing,' 'cockfighting,' 'lottery,' 'stomachache'-these are meaningful words for them".(1)

After its publication, Ko was invited to give hundreds of lectures in all areas of the world. For example, in a lecture before the World Council of Churches in 1980 he said: "…historically Jesus Christ has been presented to the world in the mold of the mind of the West.' Such theologies, he said, 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."(3)

In 1968 Ko was appointed the first Asian Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools in South East Asia (ATSSEA) which later became the Association of Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA). By 2006 ATESEA had more than 100 member schools. He simultaneously served as the Dean of the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology (SEAGTS) and editor of the South East Asia Journal of Theology. In these three roles he regularly visited the member seminaries in South East Asia. SEAGTS was unique in that it did not have its own campus, but its students studied in the seminary which had the best resources for their graduate study. Up until today people in South East Asia speak about the tremendous theological stimulus they received from discussing theology with Ko on his visits.

In 1974 Ko was appointed Senior Lecturer in the Phenomenology of Religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. While teaching there, Dr. Donald Shriver the President of Union Seminary in New York called and invited Ko to become the first Asian member of the Union faculty. Ko accepted the invitation and moved his family to New York. He began teaching at Union in 1980 and he was later installed as the first incumbent in the newly established John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Chair in Ecumenics and World Christianity.

In New York Ko encountered Jews and African Americans for the first time. "The experience of blacks and Jews challenged the heart of the Christian faith as I understood it at that time."(2) Having creatively included religious pluralism in his theological thinking and writing, these encounters deepened his understanding of his theological pluralism.

After Ko moved to New York, he was elected a Trustee of the Foundation for Theological Education in South East Asia (FTESEA). Ko was very familiar with the ministry of the FTESEA because it had stimulated the formation of ATESSEA and remained its chief benefactor. Plus, Dr. Alan Thomson, when he was the Executive Director of the FTESEA, had his office next to Ko's on the campus of Trinity Theological Seminary, Singapore.

Ko's contributions to the meetings of the FTESEA were invaluable. His rich experiences in theological education in South East Asia brought a unique, and much needed, perspective to the ministry of the FTESEA. One of his passions was to provide books, appropriate for the culture of the schools, to the member schools of ATSSEA. Another passion was training local theologians to become faculty members of the seminaries in their countries.

In his tribute to Ko upon his retirement as a Trustee of the FTESEA the Rev. Dr. Charles ("Kelly") Clark said: "I have chosen the words 'apostle' and apologist' carefully and, I hope, correctly. I believe that a review of Kosuke Koyama's ministry during the last half of the Twentieth Century matches the model established by those who set out from Jerusalem in the latter half of the very first century of our Era to carry and interpret the reconciling Gospel of Jesus Christ to the social and cultural complexity of the then-known world."(5)

In a festschrift published in honor of Ko at the time of his retirement Dr. Donald Shriver, former president of Union Seminary, wrote: "He has blazed some new trails in connecting the historical world of the Bible to our own histories. In any final reckoning of this achievement, tribute has to be paid to his faithful, not to say relentless, willingness to bring the Bible and his experience of his own century into fruitful, illuminating relationship".(4)

"Once in discussing death, Dr. Koyama recalled the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. He said Jesus would be with others in the same way: 'Looking into our eyes and heart, Jesus will say: 'You've had a difficult journey. You must be tired and dirty. Let me wash your feet. The banquet's ready.'"(6)

"Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord. 'Yes, says the spirit, 'they will rest from their labors for their deeds follow them.'" (Revelation 14.13)

(1) Koyama, Kosuke. Water Buffalo Theology: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, Revised and Expanded. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Press, 1999.

(2) Union Theological Seminary, "Union Mourns Professor Emeritus Kosuke Koyama, Intercultural Theologian." New York: Union Theological Seminary, 2009.

(3) Christian Century. Chicago: May 5, 2009.

(4) Shriver, Donald. Festschrift for Kosuke Koyama. New York: Union Theological Seminary.

(5) Clark, the Rev. Dr. Charles ("Kelly"):" Kosuke Koyama (A Tribute)." New York:
Foundation for Theological Education in South East Asia, 2000.

(6) New York Times: "Kosuke Koyama, 79, An Ecumenical Theologian, Dies", March 31, 2009.




We are deeply saddened by the demise of a great Asian Theologian and our first local leadership of The Association for Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA) Prof. Dr. Kosuke Koyama.

On behalf of all in ATESEA and STS, I send our heartfelt sympathy and condolences and at the same time we give thanks for the abundant life that Prof. Dr. Kosuke Koyama can now enjoy in the presence of the Lord.

Prof. Kosuke Koyama had been a great scholar, a visionary leader and a good friend to all who have known him. His enormous contribution to ATESEA as the first local Executive Director from 1968 to 1974 and his expertise by taking ATESEA/SEAGST to new heights in his inimitable way will always remain a living example and inspiration to all of us in doing theologies in Asia.

May the gracious God grant his family and loved ones peace and strength in this time of bereavement and we affirm that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.



I have only had the privilege and honor of meeting Dr. Koyama a few times. Once or twice, it was at the FTE annual board meetings but the first time I meet him was when, as an FTE new board member, I visited China with him and other board members for three weeks. What a special gift it was to me! Now only was I able to take the trip but to take it with Dr. Koyama and learn from him while traveling in China provided a giant boost to my understanding of Asia. My wife and I spent 22 years serving as missionaries with International Ministries, American Baptist Churches USA in Japan so we had a special bond because of our "common culture!" His wisdom, his knowledge of Asian theology and culture, and his gentlemanly ways shall be greatly missed!


Living the Mission