Research for Professor Don Hellmann’s 1965 dissertation brought an NHK documentary film crew to his office more than 40 years later. His dusty files yielded intriguing insights and reminders about early negotiations over disputed islands in the Soviet-Japanese Peace Agreement of 1956. During the decades of little progress in this territorial dispute in East Asia, Don Hellmann’s career has focused on greater understanding among the parties to those disputes: Japan, Korea, China, Russia. In the summer of 2012, Hellmann announced his retirement from full-time teaching at the University of Washington. He will continue as a faculty member for a few more years but looks forward to devoting more time to the creation of new international institutions.
Hellmann came to UW in 1967, a year when the university was one of only ten universities that possessed complete graduate programs in Japan Studies. In 1971, the Board of Regents designated the Institute of Foreign and Comparative Area Studies to house “all of the major area studies programs on campus,” including those of East Asia, and Hellmann was named acting director. He served tirelessly in many administrative capacities in order to expand UW’s prestige and resources for the study of Japan and other countries of East Asia. In his Faculty Annual Report for 1971–72, he lamented that he was unable to teach a new course or attempt “innovative techniques in teaching” that year because of “an overload of administrative duties.” The drive to take on administrative duties in order to build institutions while also expanding learning opportunities for students has been a hallmark of his career.
Hellmann’s first book, based on his dissertation, looked back: Japanese Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics: The Peace Agreement with the Soviet Union (University of California Press, 1969). His next book, Japan and East Asia: The New International Order (Praeger, 1972), described Japan’s foreign policy decision process “almost uniquely designed to inhibit positive, innovative policy and a behavioral pattern in the area seemingly purposely designed to ruffle feathers.”
Asking questions and ruffling feathers might be described as Hellmann’s modus operandi in his capacities as adviser to government agencies, testifier before congressional committees, and participant in innumerable workshops and conferences hosted by private public-policy institutions. The conference volumes he has edited, including two that grew out of his role as adviser to the Commission on Critical National Choices headed by Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller, bring together disparate viewpoints on a wide range of subjects. These works include From APEC to Xanadu: Creating a Viable Community in the Post-Cold War Pacific, coedited with Kenneth B. Pyle (M. E. Sharpe, 1997), and Sharing World Leadership? A New Era for America and Japan, coedited with John H. Makin (American Enterprise Institute, 1989).
Throughout this engagement with a broad national and international community, Hellmann has also been committed to institution building, collaboration, and teaching. He was director of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) Study Center at the University of Washington. He is was director of the UW’s Institute for International Policy. In 1983, he helped create the Task Force course for International Studies majors in the Jackson School; this program capstone allows students to address real-world foreign policy issues, collaborate in drafting a written recommendation and oral presentation, and have their work evaluated by national leaders with extensive foreign policy experience. A tireless procurer of grant funds, he has worked to endow fellowships, build new programs, and, for example, equip a UW classroom with interactive internet facilities to make possible real-time interaction with other classrooms around the world. He is developing a trilateral course to be offered at UW and universities in Japan and Korea, with class lectures and discussion via the internet. And for four decades, he has been a passionate teacher, offering courses in Political Science and the Jackson School on Japan, Korea, and East Asia that consider both big-picture and country-specific issues. He has advised countless graduate students in their work at the masters and doctoral levels and chaired many dissertation committees. His former students hold positions in government, policy institutes, and universities around the world—and one was even a recent candidate for mayor of Seattle.
It is hard to imagine what retirement will bring for a scholar whose lifetime work has included a dunk in Vladivostok Harbor and an appearance on Iranian television, but it’s unlikely that Don Hellmann will gather any of the dust shaken off his dissertation notes by NHK.