In Memoriam: Ezra F. Vogel

Photo of Ezra F. Vogel (1930-2020)
Ezra F. Vogel (1930-2020). Photo courtesy of Charlotte Ikels.

Ezra F. Vogel (1930–2020) was a lifetime member of the Association for Asian Studies.

This small band of colleagues and friends were assembled from the late 1960s, under Ezra Vogel’s direction and encouragement, to support each other as we moved through our graduate student life passages. Ezra (and yes, he insisted on being called “Ezra”) believed that having each other was going to be the best part of our graduate experience, and yes, it was, and still is, in our post-post-post lives together. We met at times weekly, at times more seldom, but intensely, engaged in research together and separately, eventually sharing dissertation chapters for mutual editing and support. We talked, ate (especially ate!) and shared our lives beyond our scholarship. And yes, as we have worked together to create this set of memories, we find that we continue to share, and to recognize Ezra’s role in creating us both as individuals and as a group.

Deborah Davis

Deborah Davis first benefited from Ezra’s guidance when in the Harvard MA Regional Studies program and later when he supervised her Ph.D. at Boston University. She taught in the Yale Department of Sociology from 1978 to her retirement in 2018. Her research has focused on family relationships, social inequality, and urban life in China since 1949.

三人行 必有我师.

When asked, how do I remember Ezra Vogel? The first memory is a gathering, and then more gatherings.

Reaching back to 1969, I recall the very first: a gathering in his living room where Ezra shared his pleasure in having recently discovered how many types of cheese one could buy in Cambridge supermarkets. Soon barriers between overwhelmed newcomers and visiting luminaries broke down, animated conversations flowed, telephone numbers were exchanged, and often lifelong friendships begun.

There are also memories of more formal gatherings, but even in those settings, one recalls disparate people commencing a shared journey. The example that first surfaces is an image of Vivienne Shue and Jay Matthews poring over newly declassified documents in an unrenovated Coolidge Hall seminar room because Ezra had befriended the visiting diplomat who sat at the head of the table. Then there are less formal but equally memorable gatherings, such as one in an attic office where he gave me permission to use the first-person pronoun even when speaking to authority. And most recently I remember one of his monthly dinners for all “China sociologists” in the Boston area, a gathering around take-out Chinese food that created intellectual synergies across academic affiliation, nationality, and generation.

And finally, beyond these academic gatherings, I treasure the memory of a recent breakfast in New York City where [his wife] Charlotte [Ikels] revealed that on the previous evening Ezra had decided that he should see more Broadway shows. Neither of them offered an explanation for his change of heart, but I suspect it was because he so deeply believed that he learnt something of value from everyone he met.

Rick Dyck

Rick Dyck spent his career in Japan in business. Late in life, with Ezra’s help, he started a company in Shanghai and, until COVID, split his time between Tokyo and Shanghai.

It is sometimes a challenge to reconcile the Ezra we knew and loved with the celebrated scholar. In Japan, he was a celebrity, and his death was front-page news in newspapers, magazines, and television. But the Ezra we knew was modest, generous with his time, more interested in hearing what others were doing than talking about himself. And he was constantly building and promoting networks of formal and informal relationships which many of us were fortunate to share.

Deborah talks about the “gatherings.” When I first met him in the fall of 1967, Ezra immediately invited me to join one of these early groups at his home on Parker Street. Compared to today, publications on modern Japan were few, and even less was available on China. All of us, including Ezra, were coming up a learning curve, and in these gatherings we were both students and teachers and formed relations which continued after leaving Harvard.

For his books, Ezra continued to apply and perfect the methodology of interviews that he used for the 1958 field study of six Japanese families in his book Japan’s New Middle Class. And his relationship with these families did not end with publication. He continued to visit the families annually for 61 years, until his final trip to Japan in November, 2019.

He even relied heavily on “living witnesses” for the study of Deng Xiaoping by interviewing Deng’s family members, colleagues, and a large number of people in Japan, the United States, Europe, and Australia who had met Deng.

As a scholar Ezra collected books, of course, but his principal working tools were his relationships, which he shared with his students and colleagues. Along with his extensive written work, these gatherings and relationships are part of Ezra’s legacy and I know that many will continue.

Tom Gold

Tom Gold (Ph.D. 1981) taught in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Berkeley from 1981 to 2018, and is now Professor of the Graduate School there. He has researched many aspects of societies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and is currently writing a memoir of his year in China, 1979, the early days of reform.

Ezra sent me a copy of One Step Ahead in China with the inscription, “One of the best of our China watchers from a fellow Jewish Ohioan Harvard sociologist.” Soon after I arrived at Harvard in the Regional Studies-East Asia MA program in 1973, Ezra invited me to join a study group of his Ph.D. students working on China and Japan that became a tight-knit community, making grad school that much better. I had intended to go for a Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages, but Ezra suggested I go to Sociology instead. I had zero background in Sociology and turned him down at first, but ended up accepting the offer when he insisted that my personality was more suited to Sociology. One of his skills was knowing me better than I knew myself.

He also suggested that I do my dissertation on Taiwan’s political economy, a neglected topic in Sociology. And he urged me to apply to join the first group of American grad students to study in China, which I obediently did, delaying completing my degree, landing a job, and getting married.

Ezra’s engagement with students, generosity at sharing his wide-ranging guanxi, enthusiasm for speaking with and learning from all sorts of people, commitment to language and deep immersion in the societies we studied, boundless curiosity, work ethic and concern for the future are all characteristics I’ve tried to adopt throughout my own career.

Richard Madsen

Richard Madsen received his Ph.D. under Ezra’s supervision in 1977 and has taught and done research at the University of California, San Diego for the past 43 years. He has written books about how ordinary people understand culture and values both in China and the USA.

At my first meeting with Ezra after starting graduate school in 1971, I told him that I was planning to take a course on statistics. He answered that if I wanted to study Chinese society it would be much better to take more courses on Chinese language, history, and culture. So I studied sociology without learning statistics—something unthinkable today, but it was characteristic of Ezra’s approach to the sociology of China. He wanted to see the society not as statistical aggregates but as real people interacting with one another in specific cultural and historical contexts. When I was preparing for my own fieldwork, he invited me (and all his other graduate students) to look through the file cabinet stuffed with his own field notes. The thing that impressed me was how he had asked about the details of ordinary life—what people ate, what their daily work was like, where they lived—not about their views on the grand political questions we were so interested in. When I was writing my dissertation, he told me to portray my subjects in a way that conveyed their basic dignity. This is how he did his own work.

It was also how Ezra mentored his students. He saw each of us as whole persons, with our own strengths and weaknesses—and focusing especially on the strengths. And he wanted to help us build connections not only with our peers but with wider networks of professional colleagues. He spent an enormous amount of time on this. Long after graduate school, I would be happily surprised by a phone call or email from him saying he had read some article or book I had published and was passing it on to other colleagues and encouraging me to do more of the same. Society as networks of individual people each striving to find dignity in the challenging contexts of their time.

Bob Snow

Bob Snow received his Ph.D. in 1977 and worked for a range of NGOs and human rights organizations after Harvard, eventually winding up at the Association for Asian Studies as the Director of Outreach and Strategic Initiatives until his retirement in 2017.

By his example, Ezra gave permission for his graduate students—at least the batch that he mentored in the 1970s—to balance on the borderlands between anthropology and sociology. This was a time when sociology and most social sciences were importing techniques that seemed to some of us to be more suited to the world of physics or chemistry. Ezra preserved a more humane and humanistic approach to the study of human society.

For Ezra, it was all right to settle into a community, look closely at the lives of a set of individuals, and to see where their storylines led. Those storylines led to places that we couldn’t have imagined when, back in Cambridge we hammered out a dissertation prospectus, usually informed and guided by a deep reading of social theory. Real peoples’ lives so rarely fit the ideal types of the theorists.

Along with fostering a commitment to curiosity, Ezra managed to inspire a sense of cooperation and mutual support among his graduate students. As others of us who were Ezra’s students in the 1970s have described, Ezra encouraged us to form a study group reading newspapers and fiction from China to get a sense of how official sources portrayed the changes happening in Chinese society after 1949. Unlike the competition fostered in many formal grad school seminars, under Ezra’s guidance, the reading group became a supportive group. We often cooked and ate together. Largely because to the model and mentorship that Ezra provided, the bonds that he fostered in the band of sociologists of China and Japan that he assembled at Harvard in the 1970s have continued for well over 40 years.

He is much missed.

Merry White

Merry White received her Ph.D. in 1980, and continues to conduct research and to write on Japanese social institutions, foodways, and urban social spaces. She teaches in the Department of Anthropology at Boston University.

What makes your data sing? Ezra would ask, as I was mired in transcribed interviews, reading notes, Japanese official documents, and my field-work journals. I got it: it was the shot in the arm I needed. It wasn’t a call to theory—Ezra wouldn’t have done that, at least with me—and it wasn’t a demand for a large sample and analysis—he wouldn’t have done that either.

I thought myself a singer (I WAS an amateur singer), some kind of scholar-warbler, humming random snatches. But what Ezra knew I had, and I was to learn, was a song to sing. And the song was already there in my notes, in the voices of others. I had heard the voices but, as they say, I hadn’t listened. Ezra was a seeker of voices and a listener: he said, “there’s no one I can’t learn from” and though we often teased him about his relentless stalking of people in airports, in supermarket queues, he was truly interested in people—especially Chinese and Japanese people.

To communicate, Ezra doggedly and effectively studied Chinese and Japanese, never satisfied with his progress—and never satisfied with my ability in Japanese either. It was his own drive that compelled him to drive me—until finally, I think I was in my early 60s, he said, “I think your Japanese has improved greatly.” And, knowing he was always hard on himself, I felt the praise deeply.

On one point Ezra and I were particularly tuned to the same pitch: being outsiders, or feeling like outsiders. We were both Midwesterners, and Jews. Harvard was a tricky place, where membership seemed ascribed rather than achieved. And yet, all of Ezra’s obituaries everywhere lead with “Harvard Professor” … and so he was.