Marvin Opler

Name Marvin Kaufmann Opler
Born June 13 1914
Died 1981
Birth Location Buffalo, NY

Anthropologist, social psychologist, and community analyst at Tule Lake . Marvin Opler (1914–81) enjoyed a long academic career in the fields of applied anthropology and social psychology, mostly at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He spent three years at Tule Lake as the community analyst and published several articles based on his work there. His older brother Morris was also an anthropologist and was the community analyst at Manzanar .

Before the War

Marvin Kaufmann Opler was born on June 13, 1914, in Buffalo, New York, and grew up and attended school there. In 1931, he began undergraduate studies at the University of Buffalo. With older brother Morris engaged in fieldwork for his Ph.D. studies among the Apaches in New Mexico, Marvin was allowed to accompany Morris to gain firsthand experience and academic credit, ultimately deciding to follow his brother into the anthropological profession. He eventually transferred to the University of Michigan, taking his undergraduate degree there in 1935. He went on to a Ph.D. program at Columbia University that fall, eventually completing his degree and authoring a dissertation on culture change among the Southern Ute. He took his first teaching job at Reed College in 1938, remaining there until being recruited by the War Relocation Authority to become the community analyst at Tule Lake.

Community Analyst at Tule Lake

Opler arrived at Tule Lake in May of 1943, a month after his brother Morris took the equivalent position at Manzanar. Tule Lake was then in the midst of transforming into the "segregation center" where all those deemed "disloyal" from the other nine War Relocation Authority camps would be incarcerated. Opler plunged into his work, documenting segregation and its after effects, the renunciation crisis, and the closing of the camp. He also documented what he called "culture revivalism" at Tule Lake, the flowering of various aspects of Japanese culture in the context of the "segregation center" setting.

He built a staff of inmate research assistants, and was, by at least one account, one of "the most productive Community Analysts ." [1] Minoru Kiyota, one of the research assistants, described him as a "tall, red-haired Jewish American with thick glasses" who "would stroll casually through the camp wearing the same cheap regulation jacket as the segregation center residents. People who did not know him probably thought he was a workman." [2]

Opler openly opposed the mass incarceration and soon found himself at odds with the WRA and with the Tule Lake administration over the wisdom of segregation and other policies. As anthropologist Peter Suzuki points out, Opler essentially predicted the negative consequences of segregation in his reports, despite which, the WRA stuck to their core strategy. As Kiyota put it,

The premises upon which anthropologist Opler and administrator [Tule Lake director Raymond] Best based their respective ideas about camp policy were fundamentally at odds. As Dr. Opler explained to me, he regarded the residents of Tule Lake as essentially normal human beings, while Best considered them fanatics. The former sought to restore the normal social conditions necessary for human being to function. The latter was entirely preoccupied with controlling the behavior of people he perceived to be fanatics. [3]

Among the community analysts, Opler was one of the few to publish books and articles based on his work at Tule Lake. With fellow analysts Edward Spicer , Asael T. Hansen , and Katharine Luomala , he authored Impounded People: Japanese Americans in the Relocation Centers , an official study of the incarceration, published in 1946 and republished in 1969. He also published a series of articles based on his Tule Lake observations that analyzed senryū poetry composed at Tule Lake, sumō , the rise of folklore as part of the culture revivalism at Tule Lake and its subsequent decline among the same people after the war, and the evolution of two religious sects.

Subsequent Career

After stints at Occidental College and Stanford University, Opler returned to the East Coast, eventually landing back at the University of Buffalo in 1958, where he remained for the rest of his life. Originally hired as a professor of social psychiatry in the College of Medicine, he eventually had a joint appointment in anthropology and later was the chairman of the anthropology department. He was among the founders of the International Journal of Social Psychology in 1957 and was its North American editor until his death. At Buffalo, he was also active with mental health initiatives in the community.

He died of a heart attack on January 1, 1981, a little over a year after the death of his wife Ruth. He was the author of over 200 books, book chapters, journal articles, and reviews.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Kiyota, Minoru. Beyond Loyalty: The Story of a Kibei . Translated from Japanese by Linda Klepinger Keenan. Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press, 1997.

Opler, Marvin K. "A 'Sumo' Tournament at Tule Lake Center." American Anthropologist 47.1 (Jan.–Mar. 1945): 134–39.

———. "Review of The Spoilage, by Dorothy S. Thomas and Richard S. Nishimmoto." American Anthropologist 50 (1948): 307–10.

———. "Two Japanese Religious Sects." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6.1 (spring 1950): 69–78.

———. "Japanese Folk Beliefs and Practices, Tule Lake, California." Journal of American Folklore 63.250 (Oct. 1950): 385–97.

———. "Cultural Dilemma of a Kibei Youth." In Clinical Studies in Cultural Conflict , edited by Georgene Seward. New York: Ronald, 1958.

———. "Review of The Great Betrayal , by Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis." American Anthropologist 75 (1973): 557–59.

———. and F. Obayashi. "Senryu Poetry as Folk and Community Expression." Journal of American Folklore 58.227 (Jan.–Mar. 1945): 1–11.

Opler, Morris E. "Marvin Kaufmann Opler, 1914–1981." American Anthropologist 83 (1981): 617–19.

Spicer, Edward H., Asael T. Hansen, Katharine Luomala, and Marvin K. Opler. Impounded People: Japanese Americans in the Relocation Centers . Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1969.

Suzuki, Peter T. "Anthropologists in the Wartime Camps for Japanese Americans: A Documentary Study." Dialectical Anthropology 6.1 (Aug. 1981): 23-60.

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976. Updated ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.


  1. Peter T. Suzuki, "Anthropologists in the Wartime Camps for Japanese Americans: A Documentary Study," Dialectical Anthropology 6.1 (Aug. 1981), 34.
  2. Minoru Kiyota, Beyond Loyalty: The Story of a Kibei , trans. Linda Klepinger Keenan (Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press, 1997), 123.
  3. Kiyota, Beyond Loyalty , 124.

Last updated Feb. 15, 2024, 9:55 p.m..