The recurring themes of Manchuria’s history—and Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, edited by Norman Smith—are colonization and the environment.

Over centuries, Manchuria—the region covering the remote northeast of modern-day China—has been fought over by competing imperial powers. Its geographic location at the intersection of three of the 20th century’s most powerful empires—Russia, China and Japan—has seen Manchuria play host to a series of conflicts (both hot and cold) from the 1600s until the end of the Chinese civil war in the mid-20th century.

Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favor of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.

Tokyo is the world’s largest megalopolis, arguably the cleanest and safest too. But what fascinates me is the intricate way 34 million people survive in the density and sometimes crush of humanity. On the surface there may be a homogenous veneer to the inhabitants, but as I learned when living in Japan, Tokyo-ites have an intense, often fierce individuality. Getting to know a few of them well, they revealed their inner selves to me, which sparked a realization of a deeper individuality in myself.