“China and Japan: Facing History” by Ezra Vogel

China and Japan: Facing History, Ezra F Vogel (Harvard University Press, July 2019) China and Japan: Facing History, Ezra F Vogel (Harvard University Press, July 2019)

In a 1975 review of Marius Jansen’s Japan and China: From War to Peace, 1894-1972, Chalmers Johnson wrote, “One of the long-standing defects of Western scholarship on eastern Asia is its compartmentalization. China and Japan are usually studied in isolation from each other.” An accomplished scholar of both countries’ histories by then, Johnson knew of what he spoke, and praised Jansen’s exception to the academic rule. Were he still alive and reviewing, Johnson would surely similarly praise China and Japan: Facing History, the most recent work by another eminent scholar of east Asia, the soon-to-be-90 Ezra Vogel.

Vogel was well into the middle years of a distinguished academic career at Harvard when, in the late 1970s, he penned Japan as Number 1, the book which, four decades later, still enjoys the status in Japan of best-selling book in translation. Fifteen years earlier, Vogel had published Japan’s New Middle Class, a remarkable work of sociology, in which Vogel acknowledges the pioneering work done in Ronald Dore’s similarly scoped City Life in Japan (1958). Unlike Dore, indeed unlike virtually all of the academics of the era, pace Johnson, Vogel traveled westward across the East China Sea for a few years of research, and in 1969 released Canton under Communism; Programs and Politics in a Provincial Capital, 1949-1968. Then, a decade after publishing Japan as No. 1, Vogel again turned his scholarly eye toward China, and specifically toward Guangdong (‘Canton’ in English until the 1970s), publishing One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong under Reform in 1989.

Vogel took a hiatus from his academic career in the early 1990s, to serve as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia in the first Clinton administration, a post that further bolstered his understanding of the region and his connections with the top echelons of power there. Vogel hosted Jiang Zemin on the latter’s visit to the United States in 1997. Considering Vogel’s career, his fluency in both Japanese and Chinese, and his enormous range of contacts in both countries over decades, at every level, one may probably count all the people on the planet with Vogel’s qualifications to publish a work like China and Japan: Facing History without taking one’s shoes off.

In places, especially in the first two chapters, China and Japan can seem a mile wide and an inch deep. Computer programmers have long had the adage, “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”—the breadth of Vogel’s book is not something to criticize, but to admire. While Jansen’s Japan and China covers 80 years, Vogel has “organized [his] book sequentially, covering the 1,500 years of recorded contact between China and Japan.” (Jansen’s work has Japan first in the title, Vogel’s has China first, a reordering for reasons no doubt more than mere alphabetic.) Eager readers can find shelves of books delving into each of these 15 centuries; Vogel suggests in his preface that his goal is not a comprehensive history—he states, “I have no training as a professional historian.” Rather, he aims to help readers “understand the broad structural features and values of national societies.”

Joseph Needham spent a career investigating what we now call the “The Needham Question”, ie “why did the West industrialize but China fail to do so?” A similarly compelling question is how and why Japan managed to rise from a semi-feudal regime in the 1850s to the level of a first-world power, and victor over Imperial Russia, by 1905, while China devolved from the most powerful civilization on the planet at the turn of the 19th century to abject dissolution by the end of it and into a 20th century that featured slaughter (with the Imperial Japanese Army contributing mightily to the toll, but with domestic hands responsible for the majority) mass starvation and socio-political insanity until the late 1970s. Vogel invests nearly 200 pages addressing this question, and these pages are a fine overview of the era.

One under-appreciated foundation of Japan’s rapid rise that Vogel illuminates is the far higher literacy rate in Japan vs China by the 19th century, and an expression of it by the beginning of the 20th:


China may have had a smattering of independent journals that were read by coastal elites at this time [first decade of 20th century], but Japan had 375 newspapers, published across the country, with an estimated readership of 200,000 in Tokyo alone.


In an interview during the tour to promote China and Japan, Vogel described the effect of increased literacy on the outcome of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895):


One of the reasons the Japanese won the war is that they had such good information about what was going on in China. The Japanese soldiers had maps in their pockets, and they could read the maps. […] The Japanese troops knew more about the geography [of China] than the Chinese.


And in the book (again), the epochal effect of the role reversal between the two empires:


The early decades of the twentieth century saw a remarkable turnabout. For the first time in their shared history there was a reversal in the one-way flow of culture from China to Japan. The laihua, or come-and-be-transformed-by-China assumption behind the Tang-Nara encounters thirteen centuries earlier, was replaced by the notion of Japan as a mediator of modern global culture … As the twentieth century opened, hundreds of Chinese officials visited Japan, hundreds of Japanese teachers and advisers worked in China, and thousands of Chinese students – a conservative estimate suggests 50,000 up until 1937 – studied in Japanese institutions. The scale of cultural contacts was unprecedented and the impact was far-reaching.


Vogel refers to the reverse-flow academic pilgrimage as “the first large-scale study abroad program anywhere in the world.”


In the closing decades of the 20th century, back when physical newspapers mattered much, a good pub quiz question was, “What do the No. 1 and No. 2 newspapers in the world by circulation have in common?” Answer: “Both are Japanese.” Even the second-place Asahi, with daily sales of about eight million copies and therefore two million behind the Daily Yomiuri, far outpaced the also-rans, publications like the People’s Daily in China and Pravda, these later to be challenged by a Hindi publication or two and, to the embarrassment of that country’s readership, USA Today. Japan has long led the world in per-capita media consumption. Therefore, for any publication to achieve bestseller in Japan is to achieve popularity against an exceptionally high media bar.

Yet Vogel’s Japan as No 1 has retained the title of best-selling work in translation since its release in Japan. And his magnum opus biography of Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (2011) is hugely popular in China. This popularity, perversely, points to a Hegelian flaw in Vogel’s approach to his subject. In a 2011 interview with Vogel, Charlie Rose suggested that, “People say that Ezra Vogel’s in love with his subject,” and within that challenge lurks the seed of China and Japan’s not destruction perhaps, but surely it’s diminution.

A primary reason that Japan as No. 1 has retained its popularity in Japan for so long is that it tells large swathes of the Japanese polity, especially its leadership, things they’d like to think about themselves. Not just any reviewers of Vogel’s biography of Deng, but those we should pay a fair bit of attention to, identify a similar phenomenon in that work. Reviewing in the Financial Times, the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, suggests that Vogel’s work “does occasionally read a little like the Deng family’s authorised biography.” In his New York Review of Books article, Fang Lizhi highlights the oft-repeated canard:


…. [Vogel’s] claim that Deng ‘lifted’ millions from poverty confuses the doer and the receiver of action. To the extent that economic ‘lifting’ has happened in post-Mao times, it has been the menial labor of hundreds of millions of people … that has done the heavy lifting.


John Pomfret, who was in Beijing in June 1989 and reviewed the book for the Washington Post, challenges Vogel’s assertion about China’s economic reforms with


the Chinese people demanded them by, among other things, dismantling the commune system, and Deng and others were smart enough to get out of the way. Indeed, the Chinese people get short shrift in [Vogel’s Deng biography] about China.

Nice Guy’s Finish

As one gets toward the back of China and Japan, the whiff of deference to the two countries’ elites becomes more than a whiff, with Vogel’s treatment of matters like, for example, Unit 731. And to mention Japan’s history textbooks as an issue, without addressing the far more propagandistic and counterfactual ones on the mainland (unlike Japan, the mainland has a single, Party-sanctioned version of history in all textbooks, and one can be taken to court for challenging it), is to steer a safe but disingenuous course.

The “Biographies of Key Figures” section at the back speaks its own volumes. When one thinks of the most important figure in China in the last century and a half, the period Vogel invests most of his pages on, Mao Zedong must surely be at the top. When one considers which Japanese are at the top of a list of the people most important to the Japan-China relationship in the same era, Hirohito (the Showa Emperor) and Tōjō Hideki must also be top-of-mind. Yet none of these appear among the biographies, though a number of far lesser figures do. Another notable elision on the Japanese side is Kishi Nobusuke, a war criminal awaiting prosecution after 1945 for his activities in Manchuria from the 1930s on, released by the United States in its volte-face policy toward Japan at the beginning of the Cold War, an architect of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party in the 1950s, which has enjoyed power for all but a few of the years in the succeeding decades, prime minister himself and grandfather of the current prime minister. It would have been impossible to include a biography of any of these figures, glaringly conspicuous for their absence, that would not have inflamed people in both countries, whether through truth-telling or the opposite, so (we may reasonably assume) Vogel’s choice was to avoid such biographical entries altogether.

Therefore, perhaps predictably, China and Japan ends with a whimper of anodyne suggestions for ways to improve the cross-sea relationship, because Vogel has painted himself into a corner of nicety from which there’s no escape. The naive recommendations that, for example, Japanese officials stop visiting Yasukuni, or the CPC start teaching history more as it actually was, or dial down the anti-Japanese dramas, would elsewhere be considered comical, Panglossian vapidities. Here they become risible.

Most scholars would be pleased to look back on a career with a tenth of the accomplishments Vogel has notched, or to have capped a seventy-year career with half as ambitious and accomplished a work. But after all those years, and not despite but in part because of all those famous contacts, China and Japan: Facing History, likely Vogel’s literary swan song, fails to sing. Nonetheless, it’s well worth having/reading, particularly for the first two thirds, but buy it along with a copy of Richard McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning, also a major work on the subject, but with far more valuable, appropriately gimlet-eyed insight on offer about the current China-Japan situation, as well as on the likely state of the relationship in the coming years.

Van Fleet’s first book, Tales of Old Tokyo, a scrapbook history of the city from 1853 to 1964, was published in 2015. Resident in Japan for the decade of the 1990s, Van Fleet has lived in China since. He is steadily producing episodes of his multimedia project, Quarreling Cousins: China and Japan from Antiquity to the 2020s. He serves as Director, Corporate Globalization, at the Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.