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Masao Takenaka, YDS alumnus and ecumenical leader, dead at 80

Masao Takenaka, a 1951 Yale Divinity School graduate who published prolifically and was a leading social ethicist in his native Japan, has died in Kyoto after a lifetime as an ecumenical leader and moral force in Asia. He was 80.

"Dr. Takenaka worked tirelessly amongst his country's people to help them understand and interpret Japan's role during the war in order to forge a better understanding with Asian people, who suffered under the Japanese imperial rule," wrote World Council of Churches General Secretary Samuel Kobia in a tribute to Takenaka. "His voice was also heard in the global ecumenical platforms, especially through the World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia ."

Takenaka, '51 B.D., '52 S.T.M., '55 Ph.D., a member of the Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan), died Aug. 17 from complications following June surgery on a cancerous bile duct. "His death was quite sudden and a surprise to his friends and family," says Takenaka's classmate, the Rev. George Todd '51 B.D.

While Takenaka is best known for his energetic exploration and promotion of Christian themes in Asia , his YDS roots, both personal and professional, were deep and well nurtured. He was married in Marquand Chapel by then professor Roland H. Bainton. His son Makoto, now a prominent Boston-based jazz pianist, was born in New Haven . He made a lasting impression on many of his classmates, some of whom, upon entering YDS in 1948, were recently discharged soldiers who had fought the Japanese.

"He would appear in Japanese kimono. He would offer, from time to time, tea ceremony in the Common Room," remembers Todd, a retired Presbyterian minister who was Takenaka's next-door neighbor on the second floor of Taylor . "At that time, we didn't have lots of foreign students. He was very much influential as an Asian presence among the students, and faculty, too."

After leaving Yale in 1955 with a doctorate in religious studies, Takenaka went on to Doshisha University 's Graduate School of Theology, where he taught for 41 years and held a variety of top administrative posts. On sabbaticals from Doshisha University Takenaka often returned to the United States to teach, including stints at YDS, Union Theological Seminary in New York and Harvard Divinity School . Indeed, he was planning on delivering a lecture on "Beauty and Truth: Reflections on Christianity and Art" at YDS this September. He was honored with a YDS alumni award in 1992.

In Japan, one of Takenaka's most lasting legacies is his founding role in the Kansai Seminar House, a Kyoto center that promotes social justice and helped nurture Japan's postwar labor movement. He also leaves behind dozens of books that he authored, including God is Rice and Consider the Flowers: Christian Faith and Ikebana . In later years, Takenaka wrote primarily on the intersection of Asian culture and Christianity, publishing numerous titles through the Asian Christian Art Association, which he served as president for many years.