Harvard University

June 29 , 2005


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Childhood and Academic training

RCA: Welcome to Japan Considered. Let’s begin at the beginning, with where you were born and raised.

EV: I was born in a small town in central Ohio -- Delaware. We had a college town. The college was Ohio Wesleyan. A lot of my friends were professors’ kids. Some of them were missionaries’ kids. I went to the college in the town too. I graduated early. I was 19 when I finished college. So I went to college at home. I didn’t apply to any Eastern school. Dad thought it would be better if I waited until I got a little older. So I went to college at home.

RCA: Other than the missionaries and their kids, did you have any influence from Asia at that time?

EV: No. My undergraduate and graduate training was unrelated to Asia. Sociology, and then mental health and family. My PhD was on family and mental health, on families that had emotionally disturbed kids. That was my PhD thesis. It had nothing to do with Asia. So I went to Japan after my PhD to see whether the same kind of dynamics worked in another culture that worked in, say, American families.

RCA: What year was that?

EV: I received my PhD in 1958. Then I was in Japan between 1958 and 1960. [Return to Topics]

Learning Japanese and Chinese

RCA: That was an interesting time. I didn’t arrive until 1961. Things then must have been quite different. Did you learn the language right away?

EV: Before I went I had a little tutoring. I don’t’ think that was a good idea and I wouldn’t recommend it to the next fellow. My pronunciation wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t as strict as it should have been. But then I went to the Naganuma School full-time for a year, with the thought that I would start interviewing. And although I did start interviewing, my language was not thoroughly fluent. But I was able to get by. My wife at the time, Suzanne, and I interviewed the same families week after week for over a year. And that was the basis of my writing about Japan’s middle class. [Japan's New Middle Class, 1963]

RCA: You are one of the very few Americans who is actually fluent in both Japanese and Chinese. You must have a facility for language to be able to do that.

EV: No. it’s just hard work and conviction that I needed to do it. Every time I go to do field work I try to spend a few weeks or so brushing up. 1975-1976 was the first time since 1960 that I spent a year on Japan. So, I spent the first four or five months at the Stanford Center. I didn’t realize how bad my language had gotten, and how awful my pronunciation was. So I worked very hard to improve the pronunciation and so-forth. I was at that about five months. And I kept up practice after that. After my book Japan as Number One came out in 1979 I got one of the teachers from that school, Mr. Sakuma, who was a wonderful teacher.

RCA: Yes, I remember him.

EV: He would ask me to give a two to three-minute speech and put it on tape. Then we would go through the tape and he would say, “This isn’t quite clear.” “This could have been said much more felicitously.” So we worked on practicing so my language would be absolutely clear. Of course, foreigners are never 100 percent clear. But relatively clear. My purpose always was to communicate, and not to be fancy. So, I worked very hard at that. He also suggested that I take one or two people whose speeches in Japanese I admired and listen to those speeches and try to imitate. So I did those two things for several months, and I think they helped to improve my ability to communicate, and public speaking.

RCA: This was after you had learned Chinese, wasn’t it?

EV: I did Japanese before Chinese, between 1958 and 1960, the first years I was in Japan. Then I taught at Yale one year, and came back to Harvard in 1961 to start Chinese language. In the next few years I was doing more Chinese work than Japanese, from 1961 to 1969. So, during that time I worked more on the Chinese language. But it wasn’t enough. As a sociologist, I felt that I needed to talk with people, to communicate. And I’ve kept it up. For years and years I’ve kept up ordinarily an hour or so each week with a tutor for each language, to try to keep me fresh. So I work very hard at that. I’ve just kept up the language. And after I retired, the first thing I did, since my main research project was on Chinese this time, was to hire a Chinese woman to be my teacher. I still have a Chinese teacher several hours a week I work with in order to be able to give speeches in Chinese.

RCA: You’re also one of the few people who actually can give a decent speech in Japanese. I don’t know about Chinese, but I’ve heard you do it in Japanese, and it’s remarkable. What advice do you have for students or young faculty who want to learn to work in the Japanese language?

EV: I think the young people now are doing quite a good job. The people who get started in a very good language program, or who spent a year out there in high school. I think the important thing starting is to make sure you get the pronunciation and the grammar right the first time. It was a terrible thing for me to try to redo that. Then, I think once you get it right, then put yourself in a situation where you use it a lot. Have somebody who is honest to correct you. I think if you can spend a couple years full-time in a society using it every day, then you have made the breakthrough.

I think for public speeches you really should have someone else who works specifically on speaking, so that in public speeches you can present clearly and communicate well. Public speaking is a different art, at least for me, a foreigner, than speaking in conversation. Of course, the language you use is somewhat different also. I’ve found the same thing in Chinese. I’ve had some people work with me in giving speeches in Chinese now. So I do give speeches now in Chinese as well as in Japanese. [Return to Topics]

The State of Area Studies in American Universities

RCA: While we’re on the subject of academic training, do you think that the American academic community today is training the sorts of area specialists on Japan or China that we actually need in government and business?

EV: I think the basic language training now is quite good. You meet quite a few people in Tokyo who know Japanese well, and people who work in China who know Chinese well. A lot of the specialized studies, I think, are quite good. What’s happened is that the field has expanded in so many different directions that there aren’t many people now who can keep up with the whole field of Japanese studies. When I was starting as a young faculty member, we knew the other people in Japanese studies: history, language, literature, anthropology, and politics. We saw a lot of them, and we thought about Japan in general. The same thing with China. But I think now we have so many specialized fields that it’s even hard to keep up within, say, the anthropology of Japan, or the sociology of Japan. Very few people now think about the region as a whole, or the country as a whole. That’s one problem. The other problem is that academic vocabulary has often become so specialized that they have not tried to communicate to people in the government.

People in the government, or people in business, have their own immediate concerns. It doesn’t help them to hear somebody give a general lecture on a topic. They have specific concerns in mind. And to communicate with them takes both a general knowledge about the country, and also a sense of how that information can be used by the person in government.

I can give you an example from when the current ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer, was getting briefed in Washington. A number of us were briefing him on different aspects. I think those who had been in Washington, D.C., who had worked there for a while, or had worked in government …. It was rather easy for people like Ed Lincoln, or for me, to communicate in a meaningful way with the person designated as the ambassador.

But I think some people in other fields, like literature and history, didn’t have a sense of how a person in a practical position could or would use the information. And I think there wasn’t as easy communication as among people who had worked in the government, or who had worked in Washington, D.C. for a period of time.

RCA: That seems to make sense. Some colleagues now tell me that area studies is a thing of the past. We must focus on the disciplines rather get bogged down with all of this area study. Other people say we have to do both. I doubt that it’s possible to do both well, and I fear our young scholars are being shorted in depth on the area studies side. Do you agree?

EV: Well, I think the MA programs at a lot of universities are still kind of general degrees. And a lot of people who have that have a broad perspective. And I think that when they are in the country, a lot of people realize that some of the home theory doesn’t fit all that well, and they get interested in broader issues. So, I think there are countervailing tendencies. There is pressure to be in the disciplines – particularly political science and economics are so powerful now – so it’s hard for area specialists there.

I think you can distinguish major teaching universities from small colleges. I think in the small colleges you are called upon to talk about the country as a whole. You can’t spend your time that much in a particular theoretical framework. But I think there is strong pressure in a lot of the graduate schools to use the latest theory in your discipline. But I think a lot of people who have gone through an MA program and have worked in a country like Japan or China, care enough about the country that once they get tenure they maintain interest in the country as a whole. I think there are people like that everywhere.

RCA: Let’s hope they are allowed to survive.

EV: Well, I think once they get tenure …. Tenure really gives you freedom. I was lucky because in my department, Sociology, my colleagues were nice to me. They felt that I was not making a basic contribution to the theory of the discipline, or that I was not making basic methodological contributions, that I was basically an applied sociologist. From their point of view that made me slightly lower status. But from my point of view that was wonderful. That meant they were granting me the power, once I had tenure, to do what I really wanted to do. And I found that much more interesting than some of the theories and methodologies. And I felt that at age 60 and 70, some of them looked rather bored with their work. And I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt fortunate to have considered myself an area specialist. [Return to Topics]

Government Service in Washington

RCA: What about your government service in Washington?

EV: I was the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 1993 to 1995.

RCA: How did you get the job?

EV: Well, Joe Nye [Professor Joseph Nye, Harvard University] was asked to be head of the National Intelligence Council. And since we talked frequently, he reminded me that I had said to him about ten years earlier that he needed to know more about Asia as an international relations specialist. He said he took that seriously. He also participated in a seminar or two that I organized to think about foreign policy toward Japan and Asia. So we had had quite a bit of contact. So when he was given the job of head of the National Intelligence Council he asked me to go to Washington and do Asia for him.

RCA: What were your responsibilities in that capacity?

EV: My job was to link different parts of the intelligence community for overall reports, and to convey the reports to policymakers, both in writing and in person, at various meetings. So, it’s a job that was designed to think about the intelligence community as a whole, not just CIA, but DIA [The Defense Intelligence Agency], INR [The Bureau of Intelligence and Research] in the State Department, and various other agencies in and around Washington. To try to get an overview on big issues, to link the whole intelligence community. That was the coordination job that the National Intelligence Council had.

RCA: Did you find that a satisfying or frustrating experience?

EV: I found it basically very interesting. There are a lot of talented professional people working in intelligence in Washington, who are very well informed. I found that coming from the outside, I think I added something, that some of them, so busy with their own work, didn’t have opportunities to think in the broad perspective. And also, they often have not had time to take part in those societies in a more general public way. So somebody who had a lot of personal contacts with, say, officials in Japan, brought something to the table that the people who work going through documents, and so forth, didn’t have.

RCA: How many years were you there?

EV: I was there two. I had an earlier chance to work in the Department of State. But somehow the family situation was such at the time that I wasn’t able to take it. So that was the first time I had the opportunity to work in Washington. I wish I had done it when I was younger because I learned a lot and got a lot of new perspectives that I think would have helped me in my career if I had them at an earlier stage. [Return to Topics]

The Effect of Japan as Number One

RCA: Many people when they hear the name “Ezra Vogel” think of one of the many books that you have written.

EV: Japan as Number One.

RCA: Japan as Number One. How did you come to write that book?

EV: When I was in Japan in 1975 and 1976, it was the first time I had spent a whole year in Japan since 1960. I’d gone for meetings and short things. But I hadn’t spent that much time. As I looked at different parts of society, I saw enormous change from 1960 to 1975. I thought people in the United States had no idea of the pace and direction of that change.

I originally thought I would write an article. My research topic that year was about the business community. But as I thought about my year I concluded that Americans need to know how fast this country is changing, and all of things they are doing. I thought that if Americans didn’t have a better understanding of that, they would be surprised some day and have a very negative reaction. If I could help to get them prepared for this ….

And, I felt that the United States had a lot that we could learn from Japan. So I first started writing an article, and it turned out to be about 80 pages in draft. And I kept thinking of other things I could add to it. I got back in 1976, and by 1977 and 1978 I was adding a few chapters here and there. So in 1978 I decided to finish the book and it came out in early 1979.

RCA: From Harvard University Press. Who had the copyright on the book?

EV: I let the University get the copyright. If I’d have known it was going to make that much money …. I just signed the contract the University gave me, and assumed that was just what one did. There’s no reason why that would be a good contract for a good-selling author, but I didn’t know any better.

RCA: Reaction to the book has been both positive and negative. But it never has lacked intensity. Readers either love or hate it.

EV: I think most of the people who hate it probably haven’t read it. I think most of them hate it because of the title. When I hear people criticizing the book I often find that they really haven’t read it. They say, for example, that I completely white-washed Japan, and only talked about the good things. If they had read it they would have known that I said I was trying to pick up lessons.

In the last part of the book I talk about a lot of the problems in Japan. And I talk about the problems of learning. So it was by no means an effort to white-wash Japan at all. It was an effort to pick up certain things from Japan that I thought we could learn. So I think a lot of the criticisms come from people who haven’t read it.

RCA: People still read it today, and even more people still talk about it. Even the criticism.

EV: Most of the criticism doesn’t come to me directly. But friends tell me about it. The other thing I would say is that the book came out in 1979, before Japan took off. I think the immediate reaction was that I’d spent a little too long in Asia and I was dreaming. Then about ten years later, when Japan really took off in the mid-1980s, people said I really had foresight. Then, by the late 1990s they said that I turned out to be wrong. So I’ve gone through different stages with the book, different trends, and how people look at it.

RCA: Do you think that is the most important book you’ve written?

EV: I think it certainly has had the most impact, in terms of waking people up. One of the things that happened as a result of that book was that some people in the U.S. Senate and the New York Stock Exchange worked with us to have a big conference at Harvard on competitiveness. I think this helped to wake up national consciousness. A number of companies, including Ford Motor Company, had me out to help alert their people to what was going on. So it certainly had more impact than any other book I’ve written. [Return to Topics]

Relations Between Japan and China

RCA: You have written about and been active in the relationship between Japan and China for many years. Do you have any comments on the current situation there?

EV: I think it’s awful. I think that the leaders of both countries are behaving very unwisely. Koizumi would be much better to be like Nakasone, who said, “There are a lot of ways we can find to show our reverence for the people who sacrificed for the country. But it is important to have good relations with neighbors, and I want to do it in a way that doesn’t antagonize the neighbors.” And he stopped going to Yasukuni. I think he therefore was able to keep good relations.

Koizumi hasn’t done that, and I think that has antagonized the Chinese and the Koreans. It’s easy to see why the Japanese are upset at the prejudices that those countries have. And they are over-doing it. But they [the Japanese] have to live with them. They have to accept those realities. And I think that requires being more completely open, and looking at what actually happened in World War Two. They have apologized a number of times. But I think they haven’t shown the kind of total openness that’s really necessary to get the good will.

In the case of the Chinese leaders, for the last ten years they have allowed a lot of movies to be made about World War Two with the horrible Japanese doing terrible things, and the heroic Chinese fighters. And they haven’t allowed many Japanese movies and cultural products such as TV programs and anime, and so forth, to have widespread circulation in China. And the way they handle information about Yasukuni in textbooks is very incendiary. They find some ridiculous comment like “nothing like Nanjing never happened,” and they put it in their reference news. All the Chinese hear it and say, “Look at those terrible Japanese denying everything.” And they don’t give a fair, balanced account. That enflames feelings in the Chinese public. And the Chinese leaders have not done much to discourage those feelings.

RCA: What do they gain from that?

EV: Well, I think they get a certain amount of patriotism. If you are a leader concerned that some people feel they are not getting their fair share of the pie, or that they don’t have enough health insurance, or enough retirement, or enough housing. Or that the country is not behaving in a very equitable way. Or they have doubts about whether their leaders are doing a good job. If you develop some anti-foreign mood, particularly anti-Japanese, they will rally behind you. I think there probably is some operation of that principle.

But on balance, I think they are going to lose. First, because they are going to have a lot of problems with Japan because of the hostility that they are generating. Secondly, I think that once people start demonstrating big on Japan, they can start demonstrating against the government in the same way. So, I think they have to contain it. They are not wise in making use of that. [Return to Topics]

The Future of the United States' Role in Asia

RCA: That makes sense. Does the United States still have a role to play in the Japan-China relationship?

EV: I think it should be encouraging both of them to get along with the other, and for us to try always to keep them in balance, and to avoid things that tend to provoke hostility between the countries. Whether we have a role to play as a mediator, I’m not sure. I think that as academics we certainly can play that role. I’ve helped to hold conferences, for example, looking at World War Two, where Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholars worked together. And I think it’s easier for scholars in those countries to take part when there’s a third party organizing it, than when it is the other country. But whether the government can really play a balancing role, think there are a lot of people who have questions about that. But they can certainly do a lot around the edges to encourage the countries to get along with each other.

RCA: Do you see the American role in Asia overall declining relative to its Cold War importance?

EV: I think that it is declining in several ways. First of all, in public opinion, it’s lost the publics, I think, pretty much all around Asia, except maybe the Philippines. Unlike Europe, the leaders in Asia have been more willing to cooperate with the United States, and have been less critical of the United States on issues like Iraq. But if you look at the public opinion polls, they have the same trends that they have in Europe. So, we’re losing popular support.

Secondly, I think that China’s influence is increasing, and not only because of its economic power. Now, places like Korea and Japan trade more with China than they do with the United States. So, that’s a big …. Our leverage over Japan, Korea, and other countries is not what it was.

But in addition, China has done a wonderful job of training English language speakers who can take part in international conferences. So at conferences in Asia, now you find a lot more forward-looking Chinese with good English than you will find Americans taking part in those conferences. So, I think in all those …. Partly because we have concentrated so much on the military side of our role, and we’re concerned so much with terrorists, that we haven’t played as big a general role, thinking about economic development in Asia as we did, say, twenty or thirty years ago. So I think all of those things helped the U.S. decline in its role and also has given more leeway, particularly to China. [Return to Topics]

Current Research and Publication Projects

RCA: In closing, can you tell us about your current research projects and upcoming publications.

EV: Well, I’ve worked on two conferences on World War Two, with others. We hope to have those get published. One is on local variations in the Japanese occupation of China in World War Two. The other is on the military history of World War Two. The first one I’m doing with Steve McKinnon and Diana Lary. We just finished sending off those papers to a press. Mark Peatie is working with me on trying to get out the other volume, on the military history of the China War. So those are group projects where I’ve played more the role of organizer and sponsor than intellectual gadfly.

The big research project I’m trying to work on is the era of Deng Xiaoping in China. Because as I think of my role, it's to help educate the American public about changes. And just as I decided to write Japan as Number One to try to wake us up to what was happening in Japan, I think that what the American public needs to know now is not that China is going to become a big power. They already know that. But they need to have a better understanding of how much change has been taking place. So I picked Deng Xiaoping, who is the great leader who brought these changes. And I’m working on the changes that he brought as a way of trying to help Americans understand how much China has changed. So that’s the big project I’m working on now.

RCA: Thank you for all of this time. [Return to Topics]