Sakura Christmas

Assistant Professor, History Department and Asian Studies ProgramBowdoin College


Sakura Christmas is a historian of modern Japan. Her research concerns the history of borderlands, environment, and imperialism in the twentieth century. She received her A.B. and Ph.D. in History from Harvard University, and a Japanese Studies certificate from Kyoto University. She has spent over a decade total living, studying, and working in Japan, China, and Mongolia. This includes a year each as a Princeton-in-Asia fellow in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and a Fulbright researcher in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. She joined the faculty at Bowdoin in 2015.

Award Information

Transregional Research Junior Scholar Fellowship: InterAsian Contexts and Connections (2017-2018)

Assistant Professor, History Department and Asian Studies ProgramBowdoin College

Nomadic Borderlands: Imperial Japan and the Origins of Ethnic Autonomy in Modern China

My project examines the history of how competing states struggled to demarcate the Mongolian territories in transwar East Asia (1920–1960). This multiethnic landscape of nomadic and sedentary livelihoods posed fundamental problems around governance and legibility for Japanese authorities after they invaded Northeast China in 1931 and set up the client state of Manchukuo. In this contentious area of mixed settlement, Japanese planners collaborated with Mongol elites to define an internal border that remains to this day. They pursued radical solutions in population transfers and rural development to separate out their subjects by ethnicity and livelihood. As such, Japanese imperialism transformed an earlier policy of assimilation—aimed at integrating frontier regions into the Republican nation-state—into a blueprint for establishing zones of ethnic autonomy. Inner Mongolia became the first of these zones in 1947, founded two years before the People’s Republic of China existed. China’s wellknown nationality policy drew not only from Soviet models, but also from Japanese experiments in ethnic cleansing and environmental planning of the 1930s. Instead of only seeing the origins of Communist rule as forged in the fires of war against imperialism, I point to the significance of the Japanese occupation in shaping the ethnic and ecological bounds of modern China. Chinese communists later adopted facets of the Japanese program to render the nomadic borderlands legible—ethnic autonomy, territorial demarcation, rationalized herding, and land reform—with environmental consequences that persisted into the postwar.