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Harvard Professor Emeritus Ezra Vogel, a U.S. expert on Japan and China, has died at the age of 90, the university’s Chinese studies center said Sunday.

In Japan and among many international scholars of the country, Vogel’s 1979 book “Japan as Number One” became one of the late 20th century’s most influential works.

Offering praise of Japan’s business practices after World War II, it was a bestseller in Japan and inspired serious study abroad among a generation of undergraduate and graduate students — especially in the U.S. — of Japan’s economy, corporate culture and society.

“Most Japanese understate their successes because they are innately modest, and more purposive Japanese, wanting to rally domestic forces or to reduce foreign pressures, have chosen to dramatize Japan’s potential disasters,” he observed in the book.

“On the American side, our confidence in the superiority of Western civilization and our desire to see ourselves as number one make it difficult to acknowledge that we have practical things to learn,” Vogel wrote. “I am convinced that it is a matter of urgent national interest for Americans to confront Japanese successes more directly and consider the issues they raise.”

The book, and its title, was quoted with increasing frequency abroad as Japan’s economy took off in the late 1980s, creating respect and admiration but also fear and concern among politicians and business leaders about how to compete with Japan.

The text became controversial in U.S. business circles. Vogel faced attack from some American scholars, business leaders and media, and was charged with not understanding the realities faced by American businesses, overpraising Japan’s economic strengths and downplaying its weaknesses.

Workers carry an advertisement promoting the Chinese edition of 'Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China', written by Harvard University Professor Emeritus Ezra Vogel, during a media preview of the Hong Kong Book Fair in 2013. | REUTERS
Workers carry an advertisement promoting the Chinese edition of ‘Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China’, written by Harvard University Professor Emeritus Ezra Vogel, during a media preview of the Hong Kong Book Fair in 2013. | REUTERS

Vogel would address his critics in 1985 with his book “Comeback,” which he said was an attempt to address American critics who argued Japanese business practices would never work in the U.S. due to antitrust laws and an adversary relationship in the U.S. between government and business.

After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1950, Vogel studied sociology in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, receiving his doctorate of philosophy in 1958. He went to Japan for two years to study the language and conduct research, then became a professor at Harvard in 1967.

Vogel served as director of Harvard’s East Asian Research Center between 1972 and 1977 as well as director of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at the Center for International Affairs between 1980 and 1987. He retired from teaching in 2000.

In addition to his scholarly work, which included numerous books on not only Japan but also China, Vogel spent two years (from 1993 to 1995) as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council in Washington.

He directed the American Assembly on China in November 1996 and the Joint Chinese-American Assembly in 1998.

In a January interview with the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party organ, Vogel said that China and Japan should cooperate on scientific endeavors, and that if China proceeded in a peaceful way in regards to military activities in the East and South China seas, Japan and South Korea should be open to cooperation.

Vogel received honorary degrees from Kwansei Gakuin, the Monterey Institute, the Universities of Maryland, Massachusetts (Lowell), Wittenberg, Bowling Green, Albion, Ohio Wesleyan, Chinese University (Hong Kong) and Yamaguchi University. He received The Japan Foundation Prize in 1996 and the Japan Society Prize in 1998, and lectured frequently in Asia in both Chinese and Japanese.

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