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This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of primatology in Japan, thanks to the works of Kinji Imanishi. Current Biology hosts an essay by Tetsuro Matsuzawa and William McGrew, which reviews Imanishi’s contributions to the field. The essay can be found at this link, “Kinji Imanishi and 60 years of Japanese primatology.”

I’m not too certain about Imanishi’s education. The piece indicates he was trained to be an entomologist. I deduce he specialized in ecology and animal behavior, because the review says he used to study Mongolian horses before he focused on primates. After his shift, Imanishi spent the rest of his life investigating the origins of human society by observing primates.

Anyways, the piece explains the various research projects after he started studying primates. This was three years after the end of the Second World War. Imanishi established several methodologies such as individual recognition, habituation and long-term observations, which are now standard techniques in the study of nonhuman primates.

Imanishi’s research also gave us insight to the mating habits of Japanese monkeys, their matrilineal societies, social hierarchies, and most importantly — the potato-washing behavior that is considered a proto-cultural behavior. You may have not known this, but this behavior, recorded by Satsue Mito, a student of Imanishi, in September 1953, is the first documented example of a cultural phenomena in nonhuman animals.

In February 1958, Imanishi traveled to Gombe, two years before Jane Goodall began her research. The photo below is from March 6th, 1958, where Imanishi (center) is pictured in Uganda, observing gorillas.

After his trip, he met up with Clarence Ray Carpenter, another primatology pioneer. Despite the death of Carpenter’s son against the Japanese during WWII, Imanishi was welcomed — a true testament of how science prevails. Imanishi gave the inaugural issue of Primates to Carpenter. Imanishi meet up with Louis Leakey and Sherwood Washburn, two big names in anthropology.

Imanishi was a true academic. He was inspired by other academics like Einstein, which motivated him to understand the world around him. If you want to know more about Imanishi, I recommend you check out this digital archive of his field notes.

    Matsuzawa, T., McGrew, W.C. (2008). Kinji Imanishi and 60 years of Japanese primatology. Current Biology, 18, R587-R591.
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