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.
In Spring 2019, he will teach the course “The City in Modern East Asia.”
EAST 404, EVST 403, HIST 369J
The City in Modern East Asia
Cities in East Asia developed into cosmopolitan urban centers in the modern era. They hosted encounters with Western empires and witnessed the rise of new forms of participatory politics; they not only reflected the broader efforts of their respective nation-states to modernize and industrialize, but also produced violent reactions against state regimes. They served as nodes in networks of migrants, commerce, and culture that grew more extensive in the modern era. In these ways, the history of East Asian urbanism is the history of the fluidity and dynamism of urban society and politics in the context of an increasingly interconnected modern world. We study cosmopolitan cities across East Asia from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day. A comparative approach allows us to explore both general trends and themes, and distinct historical experiences across the countries of the region. Specific seminar topics include: urban politics, including state-society relations; cities as sites of geopolitical and imperial encounters; changes in urban society, including the impact of migration and social conflict; the urban environment, including natural and man-made disasters; urban planning, at the local, national and transnational scale; and ways of visualizing the city.