People and Culture / Social System

Tomohiko Uyama

World History, Contemporary Politics, and “Empire” Seen from Central Asia

Tomohiko Uyama , Professor

The Slavic-Eurasian Research Center Graduate School of Letters

High school : Senior High School at Otsuka, University of Tsukuba, Tokyo

Academic background : Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo

Research areas
Central Eurasia Studies, Comparative History, Comparative Politics
Research keywords
Russia, Islam, empire, Oriental history, Western history

Why are you studying Central Asia?

Central Asia is the region covering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan、Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan (former Soviet republics), the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, Northern Afghanistan, and other areas. I am mostly studying the five former Soviet republics. Adding Caucasia and Volga–Urals of Russia, the region is also called Central Eurasia.

Central Asia has a history of multilayered coexistence of Islam, Russian culture, and other factors based on nomadic and oasis farming cultures. The principal reason for me to study Central Asia is that the region is suitable for the investigation of the relationship among diverse cultures eyeing both Asia and Europe. In addition, the region where Russia, the Soviet Union, China, Western countries, and other big powers have had various involvements provides a rich material for study of international relations.

  My primary interest lies in the region’s modern history from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century. I have conducted research focusing on political and cultural activities, world view, and the religious view of Kazakh intellectuals and the Central Asia policy of the Russian Empire. In my fourth year of university, I studied in the Soviet Union and saw with my own eyes political and social activities as well as ethnic conflicts erupting under the perestroika policy. Since then, I have also been interested in contemporary politics and ethnic problems, and studying both history and contemporary politics.


How are you doing your research?

Major materials I use as a historian are newspapers, magazines, and books published by Kazakh intellectuals in the Kazakh language, and administrative documents of the Russian Empire (in Russian). Today, the Kazakh language uses Cyrillic alphabet, but it used to use the Arabic alphabet in the early twentieth century. Language knowledge is very important because we also use historical materials written in other Turkic languages or Persian for comparison, and some studies and papers are written in French, Chinese, Turkish, etc. For me, studying various languages in my first and second years in university before choosing a major helped me much later. There are many historical materials at Hokkaido University Library in microfilm or sourcebook form, but I copy or transcribe the most precious ones which are in archives and libraries in Central Asia and Russia.

Materials frequently used in contemporary politics are news and laws, which are increasingly available via the Internet. However, field surveys are important to formulate research plans and deepen analysis. In order to listen to politicians of both the government and opposition groups, persons involved in a civil war or political change, I have traveled not only to capital cities but also to the countryside, including mountain ranges. I also have experiences of being a member of legislative election monitoring groups. Through field surveys, I keenly feel that politics is moved by individuals and therefore it is impossible to understand politics without knowing the thinking and behavioral patterns of the local people.

Historical materials in Kazakh using the Arabic alphabet

A polling place in Kyrgyzstan

I publish results of my research not only in Japanese but also in English and Russian to share them with researchers in the world. Being an international center of studies on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center is an ideal place to build an international network of researchers. At the same time, I am also putting an effort into helping build a network of young researchers by hosting the Hokkaido Association for Central Eurasian Studies, gathering mainly graduate students and young researchers. Almost all events organized by the center are open to the public, and students are encouraged to participate in them.


What do you mean by “looking at the world through empire studies”?

Studying the history of over 100 years ago and today’s politics may appear to be doing completely different things, but they are connected by the key word “empire.” Empire is, like the Russian Empire, a state that has ethnic and religious diversity and distinguishes the center from peripheral regions and colonies. Sometimes today’s United States, China, and Russia that have no formal colonies are also called empires in the sense that they intend to exercise a strong influence on their surroundings and the world.

In recent years I have been comparing the Russian Empire, the British Empire, the Qing Empire, and especially the positioning of Central and South Asia in this context, and applied the knowledge obtained through the comparison to analysis of the present world. In order to advance to a region that is alien to the center, it is necessary for an empire to obtain the cooperation of the local people for information gathering and governance, but the attempt may end up in failure if the empire takes overly ambitious actions or is misled by inaccurate information or local politics. Russia carried this theory of empire into practice when the country annexed Crimea in concert with local elites in 2014 and then caused a conflict no one can win by marching on ambitiously to the eastern Ukraine.

You may think that the royal road to understand the world is to study big powers, but I think it is more important to look at a peripheral region such as Central Asia and repeat the process of microscopic observation of local circumstances and macroscopic investigation of their relationship with big powers. Furthermore, by deepening the research on the region located between Asia and Europe, I hope to contribute to writing of a new world history beyond the distinction of Oriental history and Western history.



(1)Tomohiko Uyama, ed., Asiatic Russia: Imperial Power in Regional and International Contexts (Routledge, 2012)