Ezra Vogel, the U.S. expert on Japan and China whose 1979 book “Japan as Number One” became one of the late 20th century’s most influential works about the country, has died aged 90. As staff writer Eric Johnston notes, the book inspired serious study abroad among a generation of students of Japan’s economy, corporate culture and society. It was also highly controversial.
Even at the age of 89, Vogel was still writing. Last year saw the publication of “China and Japan: Facing History,” which reviewer Nicolas Gattig described as “a sweeping, often fascinating, account of a cultural and geopolitical relationship that Vogel calls ‘tense, dangerous, deep and complicated.’”
In a tribute exclusive to the JT, Vogel’s son Steven, himself a professor of political science at University of California, Berkeley, writes of his father: “He had an irrepressible ability to see the good in every person and every nation, while recognizing nonetheless that many of us fall short of our ideals.”
“Japan as Number One,” which offered praise for Japan’s business practices after World War II, continues to spark debate more than 40 years on. In 2010, the tome was revisited at a symposium in Tokyo with panelists including Vogel himself and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who died last year.
“I was the prime minister at the best time,” said Nakasone, who was in power from 1982 to 1987. “‘Japan as Number One’ was written at that time and it was also in a sense a warning. … As the prediction suggested, (the country) is now falling down.”
Much has been made of Japan’s decline since the 1980s, but just last year, commentator Jesper Koll offered a reality check, citing Vogel’s book as he reeled off areas in which Japan is still the “undisputed No. 1 in the world.” One of those areas, according to Koll: civil and social sanity.