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Ezra Vogel, top American scholar on Asia, dies at 90

Harvard professor authored 'Japan as Number One' and 'Deng Xiaoping'

Ezra Vogel's latest work, “China and Japan: Facing History,” attempted to tackle the roots of the complicated bilateral relationship through revisiting over 1,000 years of history. (Photo by Maho Obata)

HONG KONG -- Ezra Vogel, a top American scholar on Asian affairs, has died at the age of 90, according to a statement from the Fairbank Center of Chinese Studies at Harvard University on Sunday.

Vogel, a professor emeritus at Harvard, was one of the most influential academic voices on modern Japan and China in recent decades. His son, Steven Vogel, a political-science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a tweet that the death was the result of complications after surgery. He added that his father was "completely healthy a week ago."

While Vogel's bestseller "Japan as Number One: Lessons for America" in 1979 established his name as a prominent Japanologist, he published a number of deep analyses on China, including "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" in 2011.

His latest work, "China and Japan: Facing History," was published last year and attempted to tackle the roots of the complicated bilateral relationship through revisiting more than 1,000 years of history.

Vogel was born in 1930 in the Midwestern state of Ohio. His father was a Jewish immigrant, whose sisters and other family members died in the Holocaust.

His first major personal encounter with Asia came during World War II. Some of the graduates from his local high school, many of them just a few years older than Vogel, served and died in the war against Japan.

Vogel learned from that teenage experience, and through his parents, the importance of understanding others in order to avoid another war and live peacefully.

He later was on the brink of fighting in another war, in Korea, after he was drafted by the Army, following his graduation from Ohio Wesleyan University.

After Vogel finished basic training, some of his friends were sent to Korea in the early 1950s and died in combat. He wrote that he was "fortunate" to be assigned to an Army hospital in the U.S. working with psychiatric patients. That led to his pursuit in sociology and mental illness studies at Harvard.

His life-changing moment came when Florence Kluckhohn -- a Harvard anthropology professor in charge of Vogel's doctoral thesis on American families -- urged him to go abroad and widen his horizons.

"Ezra, you are so provincial," she said to the young Vogel, stressing that he needed to see a non-Western society to put things into a broader perspective.

He took up that challenge and received a grant to live in Japan for two years, studying the language and the society after obtaining his doctoral degree in sociology in 1958. His first stay in the country led to the publication of his first book, "Japan's New Middle Class" in 1963, describing Japanese families.

His deep understanding of the country and its people led to additional works, while maintaining and expanding his personal relationships with a wide range of friends in Japan. That brought him to the country virtually every year, although the coronavirus pandemic prevented him from visiting this year.

In one of his last visits to Japan, in 2018, Vogel met with a Nikkei Asia reporter in Tokyo for an interview. The academic insisted on conducting the interview in Japanese, because "we are in Japan."

In the 1960s, Vogel expanded his studies to China and the Chinese language, becoming a leading Sinologist. He is widely known in the Chinese-speaking world by his Mandarin name Fu Gaoyi, although he had never thought about studying China or working as a teacher on the country when he was first offered the opportunity by Harvard in 1960.

This was a time when the U.S. was recovering from the specter of McCarthyism in the 1950s and Harvard was trying to reestablish a solid academic program on modern China by recruiting and nurturing young, able scholars such as Vogel.

He was ambivalent at the beginning, as he wanted to keep his studies and connections with Japan.

"I said I might be interested," he wrote in a preface to his last book on Sino-Japanese history, but that was enough for the university to award him a postdoctoral fellowship for three years to study China's language, society, economy and history.

His first book on China, "Canton Under Communism: Programs and Politics in a Provincial Capital, 1949-1968," was published in 1969. The book involved intensive interviewing, an academic technique he employed throughout his career, with people who escaped from the mainland during the early days of the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong, where he lived for a year. That won him a tenured professorship at Harvard, until he retired from teaching in 2000.

Vogel's deep insights about and affection toward both Japan and China are what made him unique and invaluable. He was the only American writer to have bestselling books on both countries -- "Japan as Number One" and Deng Xiaoping's biography -- and was widely accepted by people in the respective nations.

Words of condolences poured in as news spread of Vogel's death.

The Fairbank Center, where Vogel served as director between 1973 and 1975 and again from 1995 to 1999, said in a Twitter message that he was "a true champion of our center, an erudite scholar, and a wonderful friend. He will be truly missed."

Richard Samuels, a prominent Japanologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a tweet: "A giant as scholar, public servant, and human being. Tirelessly curious. Terrible loss."

Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Washington, also in a tweet, praised Vogel as "an outstanding scholar on China and an old friend of the Chinese people."

For some prominent Chinese dissidents, Vogel's stance on China was not completely welcomed.

"Although I strongly disagreed with many of his views on China, but in my experience of knowing him, I felt that he was a good person with magnanimity," tweeted Wang Dan, one of the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that ended in a violent crackdown ordered by Deng. 

Still, Wang, who now lives in the U.S., had deep respect for Vogel despite their differences. He added in his tweet: "Harvard's East Asian Studies has lost a giant."

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