Ezra Vogel, one of the most respected scholars on East Asia — who passed away on Dec. 20 — embodied what it meant to be a true master of Japanese and Chinese politics, economics and societies, including the mastering of both nation’s respective languages. There are many scholars who are well-versed in matters related to Japan and China, but Vogel was simply in his own league in terms of his academic work, and his contributions were immeasurable in facilitating a better understanding of the two Asian giants for scholars and laypersons alike.
In July, some of his former students — myself included — and colleagues got together for an online party to celebrate his 90th birthday. The late scholar talked about his life, showing us many old family photos that included his Jewish immigrant parents. We were all amazed how such a radiant boy from the small town of Delaware, Ohio, could rise from such humble beginnings to navigate this world using his intellect and hard work to become the most celebrated expert on both Japan and China.
Vogel was full of energy and passion about his book project on Hu Yaobang, who was a close collaborator of Deng Xiaoping and very close to Japanese leaders such as Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. He also had words of advice on future U.S.-China policy for Joe Biden (who he hoped would win) and his administration in addition to being enthusiastic about his personal memoirs, as evidenced by the photo tour of his life. We parted by promising to meet again on his 100th birthday.
I was his student from 1987 to 1995 at Harvard where I was pursuing a masters degree in East Asian Studies and Ph.D. in sociology. I was his head teaching fellow with 10 to 12 other teaching fellows under me in his signature course called Industrial East Asia. This was before he headed to Washington in 1993 to become the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council.
It was a large survey course, reflecting the tremendous interest at the time in the Japanese economy during the bubble years. It looked at how modernization in East Asia was achieved first by Japan and then others countries who followed the Japanese example, much like the flying-geese pattern of industrial development. He demonstrated a truly amazing depth and breadth of knowledge and wisdom not only on Japan and China but other parts of Asia, stimulating great interest in his students for non-Western civilizations.
Vogel was concerned that many Ph.D. students these days have become too narrowly focused on their topics of research. He lamented that some of the ideas proposed by his students were so narrow in scope that not even he could give them decent advice. He stressed the importance of pursuing a bigger vision in deciding research topics so that they would be relevant to understanding and finding solutions to today’s big issues and problems.
His books such as “Japan as Number One: Lessons For America,” “One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform,” “The Four Little Dragons: The Spread of Industrialization in East Asia” and “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” are still relevant today and will be in the future because they all tackle seismic changes in human history — in other words, the rise of Asia during the modern industrial era.
One critical question Vogel had been grappling with was how the U.S. and Japan deal with China in a constructive way, as it was expressed in his most recent book, “China and Japan: Facing History.”
He was concerned about China’s human rights violations, predatory trade and investment practices, and aggressive foreign policy stances that show a willingness by Beijing to flex its military might. He was also troubled by the bellicose relationship between the U.S. and China under the Trump administration as well as the growing hostile rhetoric and attitudes toward China that are affecting the American psyche. Still, one of his consistent messages was that we cannot make an enemy of China or go to war.
Vogel disagreed with the popular view that previous U.S. policies toward China were all wrong. He didn’t believe that Washington had been duped by Beijing in its effort to preserve the delicate relationship at all costs with the hope that China would one day become like the U.S. On the contrary, he thought Washington had taken Beijing’s missteps seriously and had done its best to preserve U.S. interests through a mixture of cooperation, pushback and confrontation resulting in reasonable achievements for the U.S. and the region.
The lauded scholar believed that patience was needed in dealing with China based on his experiences while working at the NIC. Now that China has become more powerful, more assertive and more aggressive, he was passing on such critical analysis on how to deal with China in a constructive way to his students and colleagues.
Although his serious scholarly work focused more on China than Japan, he never lost interest in the latter and hoped that Japan would play an important role in Asia. He created a juku, a study group for Japanese graduate students and others not only at Harvard but other schools in the Boston area such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and Boston University. Vogel regularly hosted group gatherings at his home, welcoming the students in an unpretentious manner, until the pandemic hit the U.S. with full force.
Vogel thought Japan lacked a critical core of people in politics, academia and the business world who could express the nation’s positions at public forums in logical ways in English so that Americans could understand. He thought Japan was certainly behind Singapore and China, and South Korea to a lesser degree, in this respect. He was hoping that students from his juku would facilitate better communication with their American counterparts on highly complex Asian issues, with their many nuances and intricacies.
He was also highly appreciative of private sector support from Japan in helping to establish the Harvard University Asia Center in 1997. The center was envisioned as a meeting place for Asian studies and a platform that could better connect Harvard with Asia. Vogel became the founding director of the center and remained an active supporter throughout his life. At the center’s 10 anniversary dinner at the university’s faculty club, the professor made an unscheduled speech to express his special appreciation for the “Japanese visionaries,” such as Shoichiro Toyoda and Minoru Ben Makihara, who provide substantial support — even when Japan’s economy was struggling — because they saw the importance of engagement between Harvard, the U.S. and Asia.
The longtime teacher deeply cared about his students. Some professors are too busy with their work, but Vogel was never too busy for his pupils. He was genuinely interested in the academic and professional achievement of his students long after they left Harvard. He remained in touch with many up until the time of his passing.
Some of my fondest memories of professor Vogel were when I, as part of my role, was tasked with going to his house an hour and a half before the morning Industrial East Asia class to get his day’s lecture notes so I could make copies to distribute to around 150 or so students to help them study. He would often greet me wearing a gown over his pajamas. We would then chat on his porch about various subjects in a mixture of English and Japanese. These were precious moments for me.
His parting word was always “Ganbare!” which he would say with a big smile.
Satohiro Akimoto is chairman and president of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
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