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Associate Professor

Email: ctnelson(@)


Fax: (919) 962-1613

Office: 311B Alumni Bldg.

Area of Interest:

History and Memory; Everyday Life; Ethnography; Critical Theory; Storytelling, Ritual and Performance; Japan and Okinawa


Ph.D., University of Chicago, 2002.

Research & Activities:

Research Background: The central theme of my research has been the transformational possibilities of everyday life. My recent book Dancing with the Dead: Memory, Performance, and Everyday Life in Postwar Okinawa takes up this question, building on several years of fieldwork that I carried out in Okinawa, Japan. Through ethnographic and archival research, I explored traditional forms of social organization and genres of ritual and performance. I studied the work of ethnographic comedians, whose performances weave Okinawan folk humor, Japanese traditional monologues and improvisational storytelling into sophisticated critiques of everyday life. I also worked with the youth group from which these performers emerged. In particular, I examined their eisaa—dance for the dead—and its mediation of social relationships. My book provides close readings of these performances, focusing on modalities of mourning, memoration and creative action.

Current Research: My first project focused on creative actors who were able to struggle against the constraints of the modern world in order to carve out a moment for meaningful activity. While I remain committed to the possibilities of daily life, I feel it is also important to consider those for whom the burden of the everyday becomes unbearable.  My new project Listening to the Bones: The Rhythms of Life and Death in Contemporary Japan takes up this problem. It involves the study of early Okinawan ethnologists such as Iha Fuyû; an ethnography of efforts to recover the remains of the Japanese war dead; as well as a critical exploration of Okinawan photography and experimental film. I am interested in the ways in which people negotiate the vortex of local knowledge, Japanese nativist ethnology, western anthropology and discourses of the state.

Courses Taught:
Anthropology 149 Marxism and Anthropology

Anthropology 330: Japan, Myth and Memory

Anthropology 331: Anthropology of Memory

Anthropology 701 & 702: Sociocultural Theory and Ethnography

Anthropology 897: History, Memory, Forgetting

Selected Publications:

Dancing with the Dead: Memory, Performance, and Everyday Life in Postwar Okinawa. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

“Dances of Memory, Dances of Oblivion.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 11, No. 2. March 18, 2013.

“Occupation Without End: Opposition to the U.S. Military in Okinawa.” South Atlantic Quarterly, Fall 2012.

“A Letter from Okinawa.” Hot Spots 3.11. Cultural Anthropology, 2011.

“No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.” Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, edited by John D. Kelly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

“In the Middle of the Road I Stand Transfixed.” Over There: Living with the US Military Empire, edited by Maria Hoehn and Seungsook Moon, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

“Nuchi nu Suji: Comedy and Everyday Life in Postwar Okinawa.” Japan and Okinawa: Structure and Subjectivity, edited by Glenn D. Hook and Richard Siddle. London: Routledge, 2002.

“The Moai: Capitalism, Culture and Okinawan Rotating Credit Associations.” Journal of Pacific Asia. Autumn 2001.

“Huziki Hayato, the Storyteller: Comedy, Culture and Practice in Postwar Okinawa.” Postcolonial Studies, April 2001.