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The School for Advanced Research is delighted to welcome our first post-pandemic Adams Fellow in the History of Anthropology, University of North Carolina Professor of Anthropology Christopher T. Nelson. While at SAR, Dr. Nelson will prepare an annotated translation of a seminal monograph, Okinawabunkaron (On Okinawan Culture) by an important Japanese anthropologist, artist and public intellectual for publication. The author, Okamoto Taro, is perhaps the most significant Japanese artist of the postwar era.

Chris Nelson

Dr. Christopher T. Nelson

During Taro’s lifetime, he was celebrated as a visionary public intellectual, responsible for designing the conceptual organization of Expo ’70 in Osaka, and regularly appearing as a commentator in the popular press and on television. He was also a creative and thoughtful ethnographer, writing on a variety of subjects about Japanese history and culture. Beyond that, he was a complex and polarizing figure: a radical artist who fled France ahead of the German invasion; an Imperial Japanese soldier in colonial China; a forced laborer in a Chinese concentration camp; a homeless subject of the American Occupation of Japan; and an avant-garde artist rejected as a mainstream reactionary by a younger generation of artists in the 1960s.
Okamoto’s ethnographic work clearly builds on his experience as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris during the 1930s, particularly his studies with the pioneering ethnologist Marcell Mauss and the Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojevé. He was also a close collaborator of the philosopher Georges Bataille, with whom he created the Collège de sociologie, a revolutionary working group of anthropologists and philosophers, and Acéphale, the secret society that stood behind it. However, apart from a short general essay about art, none of the work by this compelling figure has been translated into English. This is both a puzzling absence, and an opportunity to make an important contribution to anthropology, Japanese studies, and the decolonization of the contemporary social sciences in Anglophone countries. 

With the support of the Adams Fellowship, Dr. Nelson will complete his translation and critical introduction of Okamoto’s book for publication. Please join us online June 29 at 2:00 p.m. for his presentation of this project, “Phantom Japan: Okamoto Taro’s art and ethnography of Okinawa.”

Professor Nelson, in the Department of Anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill, is the outgoing editor of Cultural Anthropology and is the author of When the Bones Speak: Value, Sacrifice, and Creative Action in Contemporary Japan (Duke University Press, forthcoming) and Dancing with the Dead: Memory, Performance, and Everyday Life in Postwar Okinawa, Duke University Press, 2008.

 Images of Okamoto Taro’s work, by Christopher T. Nelson