It is with profound sadness that the National Committee marks the passing on December 20 of a treasured friend, renowned scholar, and one of the earliest members of the National Committee, as well as a board member and vice chair, Dr. Ezra Vogel.
Ezra was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about many things, especially U.S.-China relations, U.S.-Japan relations, and Sino-Japanese relations. He was universally respected for his scholarship in those areas, and for his unwavering commitment and many contributions toward making all three of those relationships stronger and more stable. However, those who knew Ezra loved him not just for his work, but for the kind of person he was: humble, warm, generous, humorous, and deeply caring – especially about the younger generation of scholars. He was an unstinting supporter of the Committee, and in the past 15 years he was deeply involved in our Public Intellectuals Program (PIP) serving on its Advisory Committee since its inception, and attending nearly all of its events, including traveling to China with PIP fellows in five of our six cohorts.
National Committee President Steve Orlins and Vice President Jan Berris were two such next-generation China hands some fifty years ago who were profoundly influenced by Ezra, leading to five decades of friendship and collaboration. To say that he will be missed understates the enormous impact Ezra had on the study of China and Japan, and the myriad people whose lives were brightened by his wisdom, support, and camaraderie.
Ezra’s remarkable life and accomplishments are described in the following tribute by his son, Steven Vogel:
Ezra F. Vogel, 90, one of the country’s leading experts on East Asia through a career that spanned six decades, passed away in Cambridge, MA, December 20 due to complications from surgery.
Vogel studied an extraordinary range of substantive topics in multiple countries from the perspectives of various academic disciplines, retooling himself as a scholar many times over in his academic career. He was originally trained as a sociologist studying the family in the United States. He devoted two years to language study and field research in Japan in 1958-60, emerging as a specialist on Japanese society. He then embarked on Chinese-language study in the 1960s, before it was possible to travel to mainland China, and became an accomplished scholar of Chinese society as well. His scholarship spanned from family issues, to social welfare, industrial policy, international relations, and history. He served as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia with the National Intelligence Council from 1993 to 1995, and maintained a strong interest in U.S. foreign and security policy in Asia from that time. He turned to history in his later years, producing magisterial works on Deng Xiaoping and Sino-Japanese relations.
Vogel’s scholarship was not restricted to any single methodology, but rather reflected his drive to get the story right through whatever means necessary. For his research on the Japanese family, he engaged in intensive ethnographic research with his first wife, Suzanne Hall Vogel, interviewing six families about once a week for a year. He kept up with some of the families over the years, and the family friendships now span three generations. For his first book on China, he relied primarily on interviews in Hong Kong with refugees who had escaped from the Guangzhou region. He was a passionate life-long student of language, and he mastered both Japanese and Chinese. He took pride in his ability to conduct research and give public lectures in both languages.
Vogel will be most remembered for his boundless good cheer and boyish enthusiasm. He grew up in the small town of Delaware, Ohio, the son of Jewish immigrants, Joe and Edith Vogel. His father ran a men’s and boys’ clothing store in the center of town, the People’s Store, and he often helped out. He managed to transfer the effusive friendliness of a small-town shoe salesman to the unlikely corridors of Harvard University and Washington D.C. 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. He sustained a network of Japanese graduate students and young scholars at Harvard, the “juku” (study group), which met regularly at his home in Cambridge until the Coronavirus pandemic intervened. He hosted smaller groups of students working on China as well. He participated in a reunion of former students, colleagues, and “juku” members almost every summer in Tokyo.
Vogel was a devoted husband and father, who hosted a celebration for his extended family at his home every holiday season for the past 25 years. The 2020 reunion was to be via Zoom on the day he passed away. He loved keeping up with friends, family and colleagues. Undeterred by COVID-19, he raved about his ability to talk to family and colleagues in Japan, China, and other parts of the world with Zoom. He and his wife Charlotte were supportive companions. Among other activities, they enjoyed running daily for twenty years. When his knees began to falter, they turned to biking for the last twenty years. He even biked four miles one day shortly before he died. He maintained long-term friendships, regularly going back for high school and college reunions in his hometown. He made a major gift to his hometown alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, of the entire royalties from the mainland Chinese edition of his biography of Deng Xiaoping.
Vogel was the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard. After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan in 1950 and serving two years in the U.S. Army, he studied sociology in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, receiving his Ph.D. in 1958. In 1960-1961 he was assistant professor at Yale University and from 1961-1964 a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, studying Chinese language and history. He remained at Harvard, becoming a lecturer in 1964 and a professor in 1967. He retired from teaching in 2000.
Vogel was also an institution builder at Harvard. He succeeded John Fairbank to become the second Director (1972-1977) of Harvard’s East Asian Research Center and Chairman of the Council for East Asian Studies (1977-1980). He co-founded the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at the Center for International Affairs and served as its first Director (1980-1987) and as Honorary Director ever since. He was Chairman of the undergraduate concentration in East Asian Studies from its inception in 1972 until 1991. He was Director of the Fairbank Center (1995-1999) and the first Director of the Asia Center (1997-1999). He was Chairman of the Harvard Committee to Welcome President Jiang Zemin (1998). He also served as Co-Director of the Asia Foundation Task Force on East Asian Policy Recommendations for the New Administration (2001).
Drawing on his original field work in Japan, he wrote Japan’s New Middle Class (1963). A book based on several years of interviewing and reading materials from China, Canton Under Communism (1969), won the Harvard University Press faculty book of the year award. The Japanese edition of his book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America (1979) was a breakaway best-seller in Japan. In Comeback (1988), he suggested things America might do to respond to the Japanese challenge. He spent eight months in 1987, at the invitation of the Guangdong Provincial Government, studying the economic and social progress of the province since it took the lead in pioneering economic reform in 1978. The results are reported in One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform (1989). His Reischauer Lectures were published as The Four Little Dragons: The Spread of Industrialization in East Asia (1991). He visited East Asia every year after 1958 and spent a total of over six years in the region. He returned from his most recent trip to China in January, just as word was first coming out about the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the age of 81, Vogel published the definitive biography of Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (2011). The book won: the 2012 Lionel Gelber Prize, Lionel Gelber Foundation, Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto; Honorable Mention 2012 for the Bernard Schwartz Book Award, Asia Society; Finalist 2011 for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography; a Bloomberg News Favorite Book of 2014; and Esquire China Book of the Year 2012; a Gates Notes Top Read of 2012; an Economist Best Book of 2011; a Financial Times Best Book of 2011; a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice 2011; a Wall Street Journal Book of the Year 2011, and a Washington Post Best Book of 2011. The book became a bestseller in China.
At the age of 89, he published China and Japan: Facing History (2019), which reviews the history of political and cultural ties between the two nations over 1500 years. Vogel hoped that the book would offer an accurate portrayal of how the two countries learned from each other over the centuries, but also serve to encourage the Chinese and Japanese leaders to forge a more constructive relationship going forward. Vogel was also concerned about the state of U.S.-China relations.
Vogel received honorary degrees from Kwansei Gakuin (Japan), the Monterrey Institute, the Universities of Maryland, Massachusetts (Lowell), Wittenberg, Bowling Green, Albion, Ohio Wesleyan, Chinese University (Hong Kong) and Yamaguchi University (Japan). He received the Japan Foundation Prize in 1996 and the Japan Society Prize in 1998.
Vogel is survived by his wife of 41 years, Charlotte Ikels; son David Vogel of Cambridge, MA; son Steven Vogel of Berkeley, CA; daughter Eve Vogel of Amherst, MA; sister Fay Bussgang of Dedham, MA; and five grandchildren.