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Ezra F. Vogel, eminent researcher from China and Japan, dies at 90

Ezra F. Vogel, a leading East Asian scholar at Harvard University whose writings on modern politics and society in China and Japan helped shape the way the world understood the rise of these two Asian powers, died Sunday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 90 years old. .

The death, in a hospital, was confirmed by her son Steven, who said the cause was complications from the surgery.

In 1979, as Japan was emerging as an economic powerhouse, Professor Vogel published the book “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America”. It was a provocative title for a nuanced book, in which he described in unadorned prose how and why Japan had caught up with, and in some cases surpassed, the United States. Among the reasons he cited were Japan’s ability to govern and educate its citizens effectively and to control crime.

Two decades and several books later, Professor Vogel has undertaken an in-depth investigation into the economic transformation of another rising Asian superpower: China.

“In 2000, while I was thinking about the book to write to help Americans understand what was happening in China, I thought that the most important was this new policy of openness and reform from December 78”, a- he recalled in a conference. last year at Ohio Wesleyan University, his alma mater. “I felt the way to describe it was to tell the story of the leader who was leading this.”

The result was an 876-page book on Deng Xiaoping, one of the most in-depth biographies to date of the pragmatic leader who guided China out of the chaos of the Mao years and pushed through reforms that helped make take out hundreds of millions of Chinese. of poverty. Published in 2011, “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” drew on a decade of research and interviews with the notoriously deprived children of key Communist Party figures like Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, and Deng himself. Professor Vogel also interviewed former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.

The book won the 2012 Lionel Gelber Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, among other accolades. But it also drew criticism from some who said Professor Vogel had been too lenient in his assessment of Deng, including the leader’s role in the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Professor Vogel defended his work in a 2011 interview with the New York Times. “It’s unfair, because in some places I’m very critical,” he said. “The view of many Americans on Deng is so colorful by Tiananmen Square. They think it was awful. I have the same point of view. But it is the responsibility of an academic to have an objective view. “

“Japan as Number One” and “Deng Xiaoping” were written with American readers in mind, and both were selling well in the United States. But it was with Japanese and Chinese readers abroad that the books resonated most: Prof. Vogel held up a mirror to their country, allowing them to examine the transformation of their societies in a new light.

In Japan, sales of “Japan as Number One” eclipsed those in the United States, and the book became a favorite on Japanese TV talk shows.

“It was the perfect time,” said Glen S. Fukushima, senior researcher at the Center for American Progress in Washington and former graduate student of Professor Vogel, in a telephone interview. “For a Harvard professor to publish a book saying ‘Japan number one’ – that made him pretty famous.”

In China, “Deng Xiaoping” has become a bestseller, although several passages in the book have been excised or edited by government censors. Chinese readers devoured the book and reportedly picked up 500,000 copies when it was released in the country in 2013.

As a sign of Professor Vogel’s considerable influence, condolences were conveyed by Chinese figures from all political walks of life on the news of his death, including a former leader of the student protest in Tiananmen Square and a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“Professor Ezra Vogel has made unremitting efforts to promote communication and exchanges between China and the United States and improve mutual understanding between the two peoples,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during a press briefing, calling Professor Vogel “an old friend of the Chinese people.” “

Ezra Feivel Vogel was born on July 11, 1930, in Delaware, Ohio, to Joe and Edith (Nachman) Vogel, Jewish immigrants to the United States. Her father ran a men’s and boys’ clothing store in town. Her mother was a stenographer and journalist who later worked as an accountant and cashier at the store.

After graduating from Wesleyan University in Ohio in 1950, Professor Vogel served for two years in the military. He then enrolled in a doctorate. sociology program at Harvard, where he studied the American family. Halfway through the program, he was challenged by Florence Kluckhohn, a Harvard anthropologist and one of his thesis advisers.

“She said, ‘You’re so provincial, you’ve never been out of America, how can you talk about American society if you don’t have anything to compare it with? Ohio Wesleyan Conference.

Professor Vogel and his wife at the time, Suzanne Hall Vogel, who later became a researcher on Japanese culture, soon packed their bags and set off for Japan.

The young couple settled in a suburb of Tokyo, interviewing six families about once a week for a year. The resulting book, “Japan’s New Middle Class” (1963), documents the emergence of the office worker, or “wage earner,” as well as everyday family life in postwar Japan. It became an instant classic.

Returning to the United States in the early 1960s, Professor Vogel briefly worked as an assistant professor at Yale University. But with the withdrawal of the McCarthy era, new opportunities presented themselves for academics to study China. Soon Professor Vogel was at Harvard, where he studied Chinese language and history as a postdoctoral fellow from 1961 to 1964. He became a lecturer in 1964 and a professor in 1967.

He has held various positions at the university over the years, including co-founder and director of the US-Japan Relations program from 1980 to 1987 and director of the Asia Center from 1997 to 1999. In 1993, he took over a two-year leave of absence from Harvard to serve as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council in Washington. He retired from teaching in 2000.

Throughout his tenure at Harvard, Professor Vogel supported a large network of young scholars, including what has come to be known as “juku” (study group in Japanese), which often brought together Japanese students. at his home in Cambridge.

Thomas B. Gold, a former student and retired professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, recalled meeting in the attic of the professor’s house for seminars around instant coffee.

“He would be the first to sit on the floor,” recalls Professor Gold. “I couldn’t believe how unpretentious he was, a big bang like him at Harvard.

For six decades, Professor Vogel has traveled frequently to Asia, meeting people from diverse backgrounds and lecturing in Chinese and Japanese.

As a researcher, Professor Vogel refused to be drawn into methodology and was hardly interested in elegant theories or quantitative modeling. For his first book on China, published in 1969, he relied mainly on studying newspapers and conducting interviews in Hong Kong with refugees who had escaped from nearby Guangzhou to paint a picture picture of the region under communism. For another book, “One Step Ahead in China” (1989), he was invited by leaders of the Guangdong government to see firsthand how post-Mao economic reforms were implemented at the local level.

He published his latest book, “China and Japan: Facing History”, in 2019 at the age of 89, expressing hope that the book – a review of the history of political and cultural ties between the two countries over 1,500 years – would help improve understanding in this strained relationship.

He had worked on several projects at the time of his death: his personal memories; a book on Hu Yaobang, China’s pro-reform leader; and an article, written with Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, containing recommendations for the new presidential administration on how to improve China-US relations.

Professor Vogel’s first marriage ended in divorce. Besides his son Steven, professor of political science and specialist on Japan at the University of California at Berkeley, he is survived by his second wife, Charlotte Ikels, whom he married in 1979; another son, David; one daughter, Eve Vogel; one sister, Fay Bussgang; and five grandchildren.

Like many other longtime Chinese scholars, Professor Vogel had watched with dismay the recent downward spiral in US-China relations.

And yet, he remained optimistic.

In 2018, Zhao Wuping, deputy editor of the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, shared with Professor Vogel his concerns that it was becoming increasingly difficult for the publishing industry in China to translate and translate. publish works by American authors.

Professor Vogel intervened with a few words of encouragement.

“You will certainly encounter difficulties in this area,” recalls Mr. Zhao. “But don’t lose your confidence; you are doing the right thing.

He added: “We have to be patient.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

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