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Japan as Number 1!

I was a youth striving to learn everything I could about Japan when the book came out. Driven by the black power movement, I was “coming out” of my shell as Japanese, asserting and self-defining. I was seeing that what I had been told about Japan by American society was not true. “We” were not inferior, but actually had values and cultural qualities that were superior to Americans.

Dad had taught me to overcome bullying by believing that my Japanese heritage was great. The samurai way was virtuous and dignified. Now there was a mainstream voice saying the same, Japan was number one!

I came to know Ezra Vogel at Harvard as a kind professor who saw me, in the sense of seeing my qualities for what they were, as strengths, not deficits. I felt respected.

He wrote, “Most Japanese understate their successes because they are innately modest.” He believed that Americans could learn from Japanese: “I am convinced that it is a matter of urgent national interest for Americans to confront Japanese successes more directly and consider the issues they raise.”

Vogel understood the weakness in American psyche that plagues us today: “On the American side, our confidence in the superiority of Western civilization and our desire to see ourselves as number one make it difficult to acknowledge that we have practical things to learn.”

In Japan and among many international scholars of the country, Vogel’s 1979 book “Japan as Number One” became an influential work. Praising Japan’s business practices after World War II, it was a bestseller in Japan and inspired serious study abroad among a generation of students of Japan’s economy, corporate culture and society.

Harvard Professor Emeritus Ezra Vogel, died December 20 at the age of 90. His son Steven wrote: “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.”

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