The death of Ezra Vogel this week after a long and rich career is a great loss for Japan. We will miss the knowledge and penetrating insights gained over six decades of study and deep interaction with the countries he observed. Vogel’s greatest contribution was his commitment to promoting understanding between the United States and its East Asian partners, and no country seemed to weigh more heavily in those endeavors than Japan. Vogel’s passing leaves a great void and his death — like his life — should occasion reflection and action in Japan to honor and continue his efforts.

As his son Steven explained in an article published in these pages earlier this week, Vogel, one of the leading U.S. experts on East Asia, nurtured and mentored generations of scholars during his tenure at Harvard. He not only passed on wisdom but he worked continuously to connect on personal and professional levels. The deeply felt remembrances that followed news of his death are proof that Vogel succeeded.

His commitment to understanding and elevating Japan may be more important now than ever before. The world is changing and Japan has a vital role to play in that transformation. Yet, this nation is frequently overlooked or viewed as a “dependent variable” that is moved by larger forces at work in Asia, most often the United States or China. Decades of economic stagnation — a depressing counterpoint to the vitality that Vogel celebrated in his masterwork, “Japan as Number One” — and political paralysis contributed to the image of a country that was peripheral to regional developments. Postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, the inability to contain the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the flailings of the Suga administration reconfirm that impression.

Ezra Vogel at the award ceremony of the 2014 Fukuoka Prize | KYODO
Ezra Vogel at the award ceremony of the 2014 Fukuoka Prize | KYODO

Such thinking is mistaken. It misses the high-profile and determined diplomacy of the Abe years, the modernization of Japan’s national security administration and the increasing role it is playing in that field, as well as the extraordinary stability in Japan that is a sharp contrast to the populism and nationalism that is flourishing elsewhere in the world.

In the annual survey by the respected AEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, Japan regularly tops the list of most respected nations in Southeast Asia. In the 2020 edition, Japan was the most trusted major power among Southeast Asians, with more than 61% of respondents saying that they expected Tokyo “to do the right thing” to provide global public goods. For all the attention given to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is playing catch-up with Tokyo when toting up cumulative private investment and aid to the region. Those facts are overlooked in a hothouse media environment that is captivated by simple stories — where complexity, nuance and history have little place in this world.

Japan has two tasks. First, it must tell its story better. The Japanese government has recognized this deficiency and sought to remedy it with expanding budgets for public diplomacy. In 2015, the government set aside ¥50 billion ($500 million) for strategic communications. In the economic relief package passed in the spring of this year, the government allocated $22 million “to dispel negative perceptions of Japan related to infectious diseases” and to strengthen communications about the situation here. Critics have dismissed those efforts as defensive and reactive, and more focused on polishing the national image than creating substance to its diplomacy.

Second, it must develop networks of individuals who not only know that story but genuinely understand Japan and appreciate its role in the world. Japan has a professional diplomatic corps and there are cadres of academics here and abroad who have labored for years in their fields. But those activities tend to be restricted to enclaves, with little outreach to the wider public. Throughout his long career, Ezra Vogel worked to create larger communities of Japan specialists, connecting individuals and groups. That work must continue.

A renewed appreciation of Japan depends, ultimately, on the Japanese people becoming more vocal and visible ambassadors. Japan has historically left its international representation to the professionals — individuals either working in diplomacy or business — with ordinary citizens less concerned about the world beyond the borders. Some notable individuals have taken up that challenge but they are rare. That should be remedied but it will not be easy.

One reason that is so difficult is that the conventional conception of internationalism in Japan has fixated on the alliance with the United States, with a commensurate focus on hard security. That is ironic given Japan’s attempts to broaden the discussion of security to focus on human security concerns. Done properly, this expansive concept creates space for ordinary citizens to contribute to Japan’s international image. The Japanese government should help them do so. It is the missing piece in Japan’s public diplomacy, but the one that could pay the greatest dividends. It would also be a fitting testimonial to Vogel’s life work and continuing belief in Japan.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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