Author: Richard Dyck, Tokyo
Ezra Vogel, among the world’s foremost scholars of Asian studies, died on 20 December of complications during an operation. Ezra was a robust 90 years old, actively corresponding with friends and colleagues until the day of his death. This sudden, unanticipated loss of a scholar and close friend was a sad end to a challenging year.
There was nothing in Ezra’s early life to portend his eventual rise to prominence as an Asian scholar. He grew up in Delaware, Ohio — a small town 20 miles from the state capital of Columbus. His parents, Joe and Edith Vogel, were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and the Vogels were among the few Jewish families in this Protestant Midwestern town. His father owned a clothing store in town, where Ezra helped out after school. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University, where he majored in sociology as an undergraduate. After two years in the army, he entered graduate school at Harvard, where he studied in the Social Relations Department under the renowned theorist, Talcott Parsons.
Ezra only began study of Asia after finishing his PhD, when he was granted a fellowship to do a field study of Japanese families. He and his wife, Suzanne Vogel, went to Japan, and after a year of language study, commenced a field study of six families in the suburbs of Tokyo, resulting in the book, Japan’s New Middle Class (1963).
He then returned to Harvard to study Chinese and prepare for field work on a study of the first two decades of Communist Party rule in Guangdong. In the days when Americans could not get access to China, he did the field work in Hong Kong, reading documents and conducting extensive interviews with Chinese refugees. This project resulted in the path-breaking book, Canton Under Communism (1969). Twenty years later, after foreign scholars were allowed access to China, he published a detailed follow-up, One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform (1989).
Ezra left an impressive body of scholarship, covering Japan and China, as well as Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. He led in building the institutional infrastructure of Asian studies at Harvard, serving as director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies (1973–75) and the Asia Center (1997–99), and he played a key role in establishing the Reischauer Center for Japanese studies.
Ezra’s impact on Asia affairs spread beyond Harvard. Between 1993 and 1995, he served as the Director of National Intelligence for Asia in the Clinton administration. Together with Joseph Nye, he helped to reframe US security strategy for the Pacific region following the end of the Cold War by authoring the 1995 US Policy for Security in East Asia.
Ezra is probably best known, particularly in Japan, for his book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America (1979). He wrote this book after spending time in Japan in the 1970s, when he became concerned about social and political problems in the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It was a period of double-digit unemployment, massive trade deficits and the erosion of the competitiveness of American manufacturing. Along with other sociologists, including Ronald Dore and Robert Bellah, Ezra began to feel that Japan’s modernisation had developed differently, and in some ways better, than the West.
The book sold 50,000 copies in the United States. Along with similar books at the time, it alerted opinion leaders, particularly in the manufacturing sector, to look at Japan as a model. In Japan, the book sold 500,000 copies and held the record for non-fiction sales for decades. It earned Ezra a level of celebrity that lasted for the rest of his life. After his death, all major Japanese newspapers published obituaries and articles, with headlines noting ‘Ezra Vogel, author of Japan as Number One, dies’.
Ezra left full-time teaching in 2000, at the age of 70, not to retire but to devote full time to a major project which became Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (2011). He conducted extensive interviews in China of Deng’s children and relatives and people who worked with Deng. He also interviewed leaders in the United States, Australia, Singapore, Japan and Europe who knew Deng. Ezra saw Deng as a national leader who achieved the most dramatic transformation of any country in the 20th century.
Although the work has received criticism for not emphasising Deng’s cruel excesses and those of the Communist Party, Ezra’s response was that these are included in the book, but he did not want them to overshadow China’s transformation. To Ezra, Deng was more than the successor to Mao or the person who reformed Mao’s idiosyncratic policies; Deng transformed China both domestically and as a global player in a way that no Chinese leader had accomplished since the Han Dynasty.
Recently, Ezra had begun work on Hu Yaobang and a follow-up on a series of papers he published before the Deng book on the struggles for democratic reform in China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He postponed that work to write what was to become his final book, Facing History (2019), which documents the 2000-year history of the China–Japan relationship. He felt that the problems in China’s relations with Japan were more critical. The work on Hu Yaobang and democratic reforms went unfinished.
Ezra is survived by his second wife, Charlotte Ikels, an anthropologist specialising on China, and three children, David Vogel, a psychologist, Steven Vogel, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and Eva Vogel, a professor of political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Richard Dyck serves on the boards of several corporations, the Japan External Trade Organization and the US-Japan Foundation.
This is a shortened version of a longer piece available here.
This essay is part of an EAF series, Asian Voices, celebrating the contribution of great Asian studies intellectuals and thinkers to the understanding of the region.