Michael Thornton - Postdoctoral Associate in East Asian Studies and Lecturer in History
In 1873, the Hokkaido Colonial Agency built an orchard on the grounds of its new capitol building, located in the center of Sapporo. This orchard facilitated the transfer of fruit trees and other plants throughout Hokkaido, Japan, and the wider world, and helped turn Hokkaido’s forests and marshes into an agricultural landscape that resembled New England or Wisconsin. This conscious remaking of Hokkaido’s environment to facilitate Japanese expansion resembled the processes of settler-colonialism around the world, but also drew on long-standing efforts by the Japanese state to settle the region. The orchard, as the site of the convergence of these older ideas with a global network of plant transfers and botanical interventions, sheds new light on the process of settler colonialism in Hokkaido, and encourages us to take a global perspective in analyzing this early conquest of the modern Japanese empire.
Michael Thornton is a historian of early-modern and modern Japan, with a particular interest in urban history. In his dissertation, “Settling Sapporo: City and State in the Global Nineteenth Century,” he analyzed the planning and construction of Sapporo across the nineteenth century. He argued that the city was built as a settler-colonial capital, playing an instrumental role in the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido. The city was in turn heavily shaped by its colonial position and functions. More broadly, Thornton is interested in the transformation of Japanese cities between the Tokugawa and Meiji periods, including the development of new forms of social and political organization and municipal administration, with an eye to lessons that the rest of the world might learn from one of the planet’s most urbanized societies.
Thornton grew up in Kobe and Tokyo before attending Yale, where he received a BA in History in 2010. After brief stints in Germany and back in Japan he entered the PhD program in History at Harvard, from which he graduated in May 2018.