This October, the Northwest Asian Weekly presents the Visionary Awards Gala, an event honoring visionaries in the APA community.
By Imana Gunawan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Donald Hellmann was a fresh-faced graduate from Princeton University when he was drafted and sent to Korea in the mid 1950s. When returned to the United States a few years later, he realized his heart remained in Asia.
“Seeing an Asian country up close –– living there and seeing the difference of culture and quality of life … really affected me in not just an intellectual way, but in a personal way,” said Hellmann, a recently retired professor in University of Washington’s Department of Political Science and the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.
Since then, Hellmann has earned degrees and conducted various research on Asian countries and international politics, with particular attention to the politics of Japan. He speaks fluent Japanese and has written and edited many books, some of which being published in both Japanese and English. Hellmann has also served as a frequent consultant to government institutions such as the Congress and the State Department. Now in his early 80s, Hellmann is being honored as the part of the Northwest Asian Weekly’s Visionary Awards Gala, honoring pioneers and visionaries in the Asian community.
“I think [the honor] is very fitting, because he has really given a very large amount of his time and attention to building Asian studies,” said Resat Kasaba, chair of the Jackson School of International Studies, who has worked with Hellmann since 1985.
When Hellmann first started studying about East Asia, the subject was not particularly popular. According to Hellmann, Asian studies in the United States didn’t take off until after Russia launched the Sputnik satellite. But since then, bills have been passed and grants have been awarded to many institutions to study the Asian region. Hellmann said at the UW, one of the top five universities in the nation studying Asia, Asian studies’ pupils in the 60s were either veterans or Asians.
“I, in many ways, am a member of the first generation of Americans to learn about Asia in a non-war context, and it was very unusual,” Hellmann said. “As a consequence of that, I got involved in foreign policy in Washington because there simply weren’t that many people who had the detailed knowledge and language ability to do it.”
Hellmann said that he has always been fascinated by the people, the different cultures, and the potential that Asian countries had despite the hardships of World War II. However, when he began to study the region, no one anticipated that Asia would be the power it is now.
“I didn’t study Asia because I thought, ‘wow, this is gonna get me in the action,’” Hellmann said. “I was not a missionary to convert Asians into us [Americans] –– in fact just the opposite, I was interested in them on their terms as human beings and I certainly wasn’t interested because I expected them to be powerful.”
During his tenure at the UW, Hellmann has held many positions. In addition to teaching, Hellmann plays an active role in the Jackson School’s Japan and Korea programs. He was the director of the UW’s Institute of International Policy and now leads the Global Asia Institute in the Jackson School. According to Kasaba, Hellmann centers his work by focusing on one part of the world then asking questions that has implications for not only other parts of Asia, but also the United States.
Peter May, chair of the Department of Political Science, has also known Hellmann for over 30 years. May said Hellman’s early years in the political science department were a divisive time due to fractures among the faculty over the Vietnam war and other social issues.
There were also notable disputes within the discipline as a whole about what constituted the best approach to research and training. During the early 70s, the department went through several department chairs and had a number of raucous meetings, May said.
“Somehow, Don managed to stay above the fray and help contribute to the development of a much stronger department,” May wrote via email. “He was able to show others the value of ‘action research’ that tackled real problems that contributed both to scholarship and to policy directions for the U.S. and elsewhere.”
Because Hellman has served in many roles and capacities throughout his career, he could not pinpoint one single moment as a favorite. Rather, he said his greatest achievement includes three things: balancing his profession and his family, affecting the lives of young people, and the heights his career has reached.
Though he has received various job offers from universities and institutions throughout his career, Hellmann chose to stay in Seattle to balance his family life. In addition, Hellmann said being able to teach and influence people from students to government officials to understand themselves and their place in the world is “an endless source of satisfaction.”
After years of studying and teaching Asia, Hellmann said the region will continue to rise and be a powerful force in international politics. He claimed that the challenge of the 21st century is a world of “diversity, not universality.” Currently, most American foreign policy operates on the premise that countries, despite their diverse histories and political systems, can and should conform to the United States’ democratic capitalism. However, Hellmann said, the rise of Asian nations are going to “force an acknowledgement of diversity” necessary to make a functioning international relations.
“It’s gonna take a long time, but building bridges is more than devising policies and stationing troops and stuff like that,” Hellmann said. “It only happens when people really come to understand themselves and their culture, their background, and to, hell, actually deal with it.” (end)
The Visionary Awards Gala is Oct. 18 at China Harbor Restaurant from 6–9 p.m. Tickets are available for $70 before Oct. 15 and $80 afterwards. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Imana Gunawan can be reached at email@example.com.