Memorial conference celebrates life work of Masahiko Aoki


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Stanford professor Takeo Hoshi opens a day-long conference at Stanford celebrating the life and scholarly work of Masahiko Aoki, Dec. 4, 2015.
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

A conference that honored the life and scholarly contributions of Stanford economist Masahiko Aoki was held at Stanford. Dozens of friends, family and community members paid tribute to Aoki, the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Professor of Japanese Studies and Professor of Economics, emeritus, who died in July at the age of 77.

Eleven renowned economists and social scientists gave talks on Aoki’s extensive fields of research in economic theory, institutional analysis, corporate governance, and the Japanese and Chinese economies at the Dec. 4 conference, which was followed by a memorial ceremony the next day.

“When we contacted people to speak at this conference, few people turned us down,” said Stanford professor Takeo Hoshi. “The reason for this is Masa. It shows how much Masa was respected and how much his work is valued.”

The events were hosted by the Japan Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), Graduate School of Business, Department of Economics and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).

Aoki came to Stanford in 1967 as an assistant professor, held faculty appointments at Kyoto University and Harvard, and returned to Stanford in 1984. He retired to emeritus status at Stanford in 2005.

Throughout the conference, Aoki was described as an astute professor and colleague, valuable mentor and loyal friend by the many speakers and participants who shared works, stories and multimedia featuring their interactions with Aoki.

Aoki pioneered the field of comparative institutional analysis (CIA) with a team of scholars at Stanford: Avner Greif, John Litwack, Paul Milgrom and Yingyi Qian, among others. CIA analyzes and compares different institutions that evolve to regulate different societies.

Masahiko Aoki (far left) is pictured with colleagues on the Stanford campus in the late 1960s.

“Masa had a good background in looking at the economy as a whole, financial institutions as a whole – not just how numbers or actors economically interact – but also the people who interact within a given institutional framework,” said Koichi Hamada, a professor emeritus at Yale University. 

“Masa had a good background in looking at the economy as a whole, financial institutions as a whole – not just how numbers or actors economically interact…”

-Koichi Hamada, Yale University

Aoki applied a systematic lens to everything he studied, a “take society as a total entity” approach, Hamada said.

Aoki grew up in Japan, and developed a deep interest in Japanese politics at an early age. He was actively involved in student movements in the early 1960s, at the heart of which was a campaign against a controversial U.S.-Japan security treaty. China became another great interest of his as the country began to undergo economic transformation and modernization.

Throughout his career, Aoki traveled to Japan and China often, and sought to better inform policy debates by engaging scholars, government leaders and journalists there.

He believed in sharing lessons learned from his own scholarly analyses on what constitute institutions, particularly the “people” aspects – the employees, their cognitive abilities and levels of participation.

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Top left to right: Yingyi Qian of Tsinghau University talks with Avner Greif of Stanford University and Hugh Patrick of Columbia University. / Koichi Hamada of Yale University delivers his remarks titled "Masahiko Aoki: A Social Scientist." Bottom: Reiko Aoki, the wife of Masahiko Aoki, listens in to Kenneth Arrow, a professor emeritus at Stanford University. Credit: Rod Searcey

Aoki was not only a scholar of institutions but also a builder of them.

In 2005, Aoki helped oversee the development of the Center for Industrial Development and Environmental Governance at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which held numerous roundtables in its first decade of existence, and continues to this day.

“Amid a time of diplomatic tensions between China and Japan…Masa was able to bring Japanese, Chinese and American economists together to study and do research,” said Yingyi Qian, dean and professor at the school of economics and management at Tsinghua.

At Stanford, Aoki played a leading role in the creation of the Stanford Japan Center and a multi-day conference that convened annually in Kyoto on issues of mutual concern between Asia-Pacific countries and the United States.

Masa Aoki’s legacy will serve as an integral guidepost for many years to come. May his soul rest in peace.

-Kotaro Suzumura, Hitotsubashi University

Earlier this year, Aoki was hospitalized for lung disease. Even at that stage, he worked tirelessly to revise a paper that examines the institutional development of China and Japan in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

That paper titled, “Three-person game of institutional resilience versus transition: A model and China-Japan comparative history,” was presented at the conference by Jiahua Che, one of two scholars that Aoki asked to finish and publish the work.

Aoki was also fondly remembered for his mentorship of students at Stanford and other universities he taught at.

“He was an original and unique professor – quite different from others that I’ve met in many respects. He was generous with his time, not hierarchical,” said Miguel Angel Garcia Cestona, who studied for a doctorate at Stanford and now teaches at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona.

Garcia Cestona, among other former students, spoke of Aoki as a friend and shared memories of their former professor hosting them at his home.

Masahiko Aoki in Northern California, 2014.

Related Links:

Conference agenda

Stanford obituary