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Ezra Vogel, a Harvard scholar of Japan and China, dies at 90

Dr. Ezra Vogel spent most of his academic career at Harvard and published several books on Asian affairs.
Dr. Ezra Vogel spent most of his academic career at Harvard and published several books on Asian affairs.Matt Craig,Staff Photographer/Harvard University News Office

With the intriguing title “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America,” Ezra Vogel’s best-known book was a best seller in Japan and back home in the United States, where the Harvard University professor’s fellow citizens might not have been as welcoming of the opinion that their country was no longer first.

“I don’t think that being number two is the worst thing in the world,” he told the Globe in 1985, six years after the book was published. “You can be a strong number two, like the Celtics, and still be a very good team and have a lot of esprit. What I worry about is the general spirit of decline.”

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When trying to gauge what the future might hold, he added, looking back was as important as looking forward — as was the case with England.

“It’s not just that England lost the Colonies and is no longer number one, it’s that the whole fabric of their society is just falling apart,” he said. “People are very distraught, you can’t get quality goods, and it’s one defeat after another. America may be in for a few defeats, and I don’t think we take defeat well.”

Dr. Vogel, the Henry Ford II professor of social sciences emeritus at Harvard, died Dec. 20 in Mount Auburn Hospital of complications from surgery. He was 90 and had lived in Cambridge.

Spending most of his career at Harvard, beginning as a graduate student, Dr. Vogel held a number of leadership roles. He twice served as director of the East Asian Research Center, which is now the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

Along with being the second director of that center, he was the second chairman of Harvard’s Council for East Asian Studies and had been the first director of the undergraduate concentration in East Asian studies.

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Dr. Vogel was also the first director of Harvard’s program on US-Japan relations at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, from 1980 to 1987. He then served as honorary director until his death.

“It is hard to exaggerate the role played by Ezra in this important chapter of Harvard’s growth,” said Mark Elliott, Harvard’s vice provost of international affairs and a professor of Chinese and inner Asian history, for the university’s obituary, in the Harvard Gazette.

“As a leader of various academic centers, he shaped the direction of Harvard research on East Asia and ensured it was firmly grounded in real-world affairs; his own work as a scholar shared this same practical quality, as did his many contributions as a public intellectual and his generous mentorship of generations of students and scholars,” Elliott said.

Dr. Vogel’s writing, however, had an impact far beyond Cambridge. “Japan as Number One” sold even better in Japan than in the United States.

That was also the case with his well-known book, “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,” a 2011 biography about the late Chinese leader that reportedly sold 500,000 copies in China. The book, published when Dr. Vogel was 81, won the 2012 Lionel Gelber Prize and was a biography finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

China’s Foreign Ministry called Dr. Vogel “an old friend of the Chinese people,” the Associated Press reported

“I started in 2000. I thought it’d take five years,” he said of “Deng Xiaoping” in a 2011 New York Times interview.

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“I wanted to know those who supported Deng and those who criticized Deng from different perspectives,” said Dr. Vogel, who added that some liberal intellectuals “told me that if Mao was 70 percent good; Deng was 50 percent good and 50 percent bad.”

Ezra F. Vogel was born in 1930 in Delaware, Ohio, and grew up there, the older of two siblings.

His father, Joe Vogel, ran the People’s Store, selling men’s and boys’ clothing in the center of town, Young Ezra often helped out, as did his mother, Edith Nachman, who worked at the register and did some of the accounting. She had been a stenographer and journalist before marrying, and taught her children precision in writing.

The community is home to Ohio Wesleyan University, and the family would go “to all the concerts and all the lectures,” said Dr. Vogel’s sister, Fay Bussgang of Dedham. “It formed an intellectual background for our family in some ways.”

Joe Vogel was a “self-scholar” of history and comparative religion, she said, and would engage in conversations with professors who came into the store.

“Ezra was always a teacher. I was 2 ½ years younger and he was always teaching me. Everything he learned he would teach me,” she said, adding that at his retirement gathering, “I said he was my first teacher, and I was his first student.”

Dr. Vogel graduated in 1950 from Ohio Wesleyan with a bachelor’s degree. Several years ago, he donated to his alma mater the mainland China proceeds from his book “Deng Xiaoping,” an estimated $500,000, to support students’ studies, travel, and research in East Asia.

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After Ohio Wesleyan, he spent two years in the Army, serving as a mental health assistant, and then studied sociology at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1958 with a doctorate. He went to Yale University as an assistant professor before returning to Harvard, where he was a post-doctoral fellow, a lecturer, and then a professor, retiring in 2000.

His first marriage, to psychotherapist and writer Suzanne Hall Vogel, ended in divorce. They had three children — David of Cambridge, Steven of Berkeley, Calif., and Eve of Amherst. Suzanne Vogel died in 2012.

Dr. Vogel’s many other books include “Japan’s New Middle Class” (1963) and “Canton Under Communism” (1969), the latter of which received the Harvard University Press faculty book of the year award. In 2019, at 89, he published “China and Japan: Facing History.”

“As a scholar what’s impressive is that he reinvented himself over and over,” said Steven, a professor of Asian studies and political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Vogel took a leave from Harvard in the early 1990s to serve as the national intelligence officer for East Asia with the National Intelligence Council.

In 1979, he married Charlotte Ikels, who is now a professor of anthropology emeritus at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

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Dr. Vogel had expected his recent surgery to go smoothly and was active to the end, even taking a 4-mile bicycle ride a few days before entering the hospital.

He always had many projects in progress simultaneously, Charlotte said. “He would complain, ‘Oh, my memory is going.’ His memory was never going. He remembered thousands and thousands of names in Japanese and Chinese.”

In addition to his wife, three children, and sister, Dr. Vogel leaves five grandchildren.

A memorial gathering will be announced in the spring.

Though Dr. Vogel spent his career in the Ivy League, he carried with him his Midwestern upbringing.

“What Ezra retained from Delaware was the small-town friendliness. I think he carried that to Harvard in ways that other professors did not,” his sister said.

“He took that kind of outgoing, friendly unpretentiousness and he translated it to Harvard University, and I think people loved him for that,” Steven said. “He just loved people.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.