Karen Nakamura is a cultural and visual anthropologist at UC Berkeley who does research on disability, sexuality, and other minority social movements. In 2006, she published Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity, an ethnography of sign language and deaf social movements in contemporary Japan. Her second project on psychiatric disabilities and community based recovery in contemporary Japan resulted in two ethnographic films and a book titled, A Disability of the Soul: An Ethnography of Schizophrenia and Mental Illness in Contemporary Japan (2014). Her books, films, and articles have resulted in numerous prizes including the John Whitney Hall Book Prize, the SVA Short Film Award, and David Plath Media Award. She is currently working on the intersections of sexuality, disability, and eugenics.
Fueled by a rapid increase in the number of those claiming protection, disability rights is a growing political and social issue in Japan and the United States. This ethnographic research project explores the expansion and strengthening of disability rights rhetorics at the grass-roots level in these two industrialized democracies through close participant-observation research within disability groups. In Japan where a strong ethnic minority rights model has not been present, disability activists have made significant progress using a social welfare model to coerce the government bureaucracy for more funds and resources. In the United States, disability has been largely framed as a civil rights issue, not social welfare, and the main expansion of coverage has been through the judicial system. This comparative project seeks to understand how activists in two different frames for civil society formation conceive, organize, and manage this new variation of minority identity politics.