The Weatherhead East Asian Institute Turns 75

U.S. Climate Envoy and former Secretary of State John Kerry delivers the gala’s keynote address.

Ariana King
February 08, 2024

On February 1, 2024, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute (WEAI) hosted a gala dinner in commemoration of both the Year of the Dragon and its 75-year history as a pioneer in the study of East, Southeast, and Inner Asia. The event brought together scholars, students, diplomats, business leaders, and artists from on and off campus, connected by a common interest in the region.

“Tonight is a celebration of the Institute in the decades since we were founded in 1949,” said WEAI Director Lien-Hang Nguyen in her introduction. “We’ve evolved from our initial focus on Japan’s transformation from enemy to friend, and when challenges were presented in the People’s Republic of China. We grew to encompass the study of North and South Korea, and we took on the focus of Tibet and Mongolia. All the while, our faculty grew to encompass schools throughout the University, as we studied and taught about America’s engagement with East Asia.” 

Also making opening remarks was Columbia President Minouche Shafik, who said, “Today, the Institute is the University’s premier center for East Asian studies. Its members excel in their charge to train future generations of leaders and engage with the people, institutions, and issues shaping the region and the world.”

John Kerry: U.S.-East Asian Relations

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former Secretary of State John Kerry delivered the keynote address. He highlighted the importance of U.S.-East Asian relations in tackling the global climate crisis, and, drawing from his experience as a Vietnam War veteran and international negotiator, promoting policies grounded in understanding.

“It’s easy today to forget the road that we’ve traveled,” Kerry said. He reminded the full audience in the Low Library rotunda that when the WEAI was founded in 1949, there was a lack of common ground in U.S.-Asian relations.

“Understanding, curiosity, nuance, appreciation for Asia’s immense potential––these were all qualities which, back then, had yet to be learned in Washington, let alone embraced,” Kerry said. “Into these shifting sands stepped the Weatherhead East Asian Institute; as thoughtful an institution as you can imagine in a world where failures of understanding could lead to great failures of history and humanity.”

Following his remarks, Kerry announced the Paul F. Nace Jr. Scholarship Fund, a new initiative for veterans and current service members in the School of General Studies.

Honoring Asian Pathbreakers

The gala also honored six Asian pathbreakers for their contributions to their respective fields. The honorees in attendance were Chairman and CEO of East West Bank Dominic Ng, Nobel laureate and journalist Maria Ressa, author Min Jin Lee, and artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Former governor of the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda, and Chairman and Honorary CEO of Kikkoman, Yuzaburo Mogi, were honored in absentia.

The WEAI 75th Anniversary Student Award for Excellence honorees, from left to right: Tender Dorjee, Kaitlin Hao, Caixia Mao, Kanako Tajima, and Sam Angell. Photo by Christian Balmers.

The honorees presented the WEAI 75th Anniversary Student Award for Excellence, granted to the most outstanding students whose work focuses on the region. Their research and studies comprise a diverse array of disciplines, including history, activism, art history, environmental policymaking, and literature. A full list of the student awardees and their work can be found on the WEAI website.

Noting her admiration for the Institute’s publications series, which feature groundbreaking scholarship and literary translations, Pachinko author and honoree Min Jin Lee said, “I wanted to be here because I knew that this, tonight, would be the ideal opportunity to thank the thinkers and the writers in this room, and every person who has supported a brave scholar who built these valuable time machines, which allow each and every kind of mind to travel to humanity’s yesterdays––so we can imagine, struggle, and build a far, far better tomorrow for all of us.”

WEAI Today and Tomorrow

Since its establishment as one of the first institutes in the U.S. dedicated to the advanced training of East Asian specialists, WEAI has been at the forefront of research and teaching about the region. The Institute is now a dynamic hub for interdisciplinary and multinational scholarship at Columbia, and is actively engaged across the academy, supporting research and programming in the humanities, professional schools, and social sciences. Founded as the East Asian Institute, the Institute was renamed in 2003 in recognition of the generosity of the Weatherhead Foundation.

Funds raised from the gala will go toward future programming, including a series of summer events to be held in Asia in conjunction with local alumni chapters. Kerry’s keynote address marked the first event in a policy series to run through 2024, exploring the theme, “From the American Century to the Pacific Age.” The Institute will also host a Global Asia Film Series of screenings throughout the spring semester under the auspices of Sundance Award-winning director and WEAI filmmaker-in-residence Tony Bui. For more information about Institute activities and events to be held throughout the year, visit the 75th anniversary webpage here.

A full video of the gala dinner is available on the Institute’s YouTube channel.

Ariana King is senior communications coordinator at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.