Cynthia Enloe: When I think about disposability, I think about namelessness. I think about whose pictures are taken in refugee camps. Or whose stones without names you look at at a mass grave, or just a ditch for that matter. To be disposable is to be nameless in somebody’s eyes. Not originally in your own, not in your family’s, not in your neighbor’s, not in your fellow citizens’. But in the people who imagined you were disposable. It’s to become nameless.
So anti-disposability, then, means recovering names. But not recovering names so you can just put them on a headstone, or recovering names so you can just put them on a plaque that people may or may not pause and look at. Recovering your name means recovering your ideas. Recovering your voice. Realizing that you may have been a difficult person. You may have been a very generous person. You may have been a person who voted regularly. You may have been a person so cynical that you never voted. To recover your name and recover your voice is not to recover just your angelic self but to recover your complicated self.
Last week I was invited to Tokyo, where I hadn’t been for awhile. And my hosts were Japanese feminists; terrific group of Japanese feminists doing all kinds of interesting work. And one afternoon we had a bit of free time, and so my friend Fumika took me on many subways. And we went to a small museum called the Women’s Activism Museum [Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace], which I had never heard of. I love museums. I’m very interested in what museum curators do and make us think. But I had never heard of the Women’s Activism Museum, which was created with a small bequest left by another Japanese feminist who died a very untimely death from cancer.
So we took our many subways, and we walked then, using an iPhone to get us through the Tokyo back streets. And we came to a door that looked as though it was just an ordinary commercial business. There was no sign. And Fumika said, “Well, there’s no sign for a reason. Because the museum is upstairs and right-wing nationalists come here even without the sign and demonstrate. With the sign we have even more demonstrators.”
So we went in the business door and through this commercial space. And then we walked up some stairs. And we came out into a very small, rather cramped, lively space. And it was the Women’s Activism Museum in Tokyo. And what it is, is a museum dedicated to the memory of women who were abducted and made to serve in the Imperial Army’s World War II comfort women brothel system.
Now, the reason this makes me think so much about disposability is because that’s exactly what these women were imagined to be. These are women from Taiwan, from Indonesia—including some Dutch women from Indonesia at the time. From Singapore, from Malaysia, and especially from the Philippines and from what is now South Korea. There are also women in the north but we don’t know much about them.
And the museum is dedicated to anti-disposability in the sense that if people have names, if they have stories, if they have voices, if they have ideas about their experiences, it’s much harder to dispose of them. It is much harder for any of us to dispose of somebody who has a name, has a story, has an idea. And in this case has a photograph of just her by herself with her name underneath it. And this museum was created by Japanese feminists as part of a very prolonged postwar accounting. Japanese feminists are amongst the most determined, I think, not to let postwar be “over” until in fact we have accounted for what we’ve done in whatever the last war was, whether the last war was the Crimean War, or the last war was the war in the former Yugoslavia, the last war was the US or French wars in Vietnam, or the last war was the multinational, multi-state war of World War II.
And so what these Japanese women have done is very sensitively, with a lot of sense of respect for every woman who survived the comfort women system, have tried to find and be in touch with women who survived being forced into sex slavery, or forced prostitution during World War II for the sake of the Japanese Imperial Army. And there’s one whole wall that is devoted to all the women that have both been found by the Japanese women and who have agreed—this is part of not being disposable; you have a say as to whether you want to be found, and when you’re found whether you want the finders to name you and put your photograph on a wall.
So far, there must be—I may have this wrong. There must be at least 140 women who have not only been found then named, but also have given their own voluntary consent that their own photograph can go up on the wall. Because part of not being disposable is to acknowledge your history and not to find it any longer as a shameful history.
The other thing that they’ve done here that teaches us a lot about what anti-disposability looks like is to talk about the gendered politics of World War II. Which means talking about the gendered politics of any mass violence. So now, in Turkey there are Turkish feminists who are doing feminist analyses of the Armenian genocide. And they are finding women who at the time were young girls and were taken in, voluntarily, by ethnic Turkish families but then raised as ethnic Turks. These young girls escaped the Armenian genocide, but only now as grandmothers are they making connection with Turkish feminists and Armenian feminists to actually give their stories.
And sometimes they don’t really remember how they came to be in these Turkish families, but what they do remember, and this is so interesting, what they do remember is bits of Armenian recipes. And they grew up as adult women starting to cook, and they began to put ingredients into dishes that their Turkish adoptive mothers wouldn’t put in. And they began to think when they started being contacted by Turkish feminists, they began to think, “Well, where did I learn that recipe from?” And they are really recovering their own Armenian identities and their own past.
So another work of anti-disposability is finding people who have survived, in this case as women, and finding their own memories that come out of scraps and fragments of their own girlhoods, to make better sense of what did happen during the Armenian genocide. Who did survive? What did they survive with?
So I think it teaches us a lot about what anti-disposability is like. It is not just us, if we are the ones who were on the perpetrator side, out of a sense of guilt going and finding the mass killings, or the mass abuse as in the case of the Imperial Army’s comfort women system. It is actually engaging with those people who did survive, or engaging if we can with the memories of those people who didn’t, and treat them with respect. Treat them as, if you will, fellow citizens of the world. And to be a citizen means you get to have a say. You get to have an analysis. You get to impose meaning. The finder, the person who’s guilty and trying to recover a dreadful past is not the only one who gets to assign meaning.
When I was also in Japan, during the same very wonderful chock-full week, I was talking to friends about the new German movie by von Trotta called Hannah Arendt. Now, I had seen Hannah Arendt in Boston before I went to Tokyo. And here in the US, it actually didn’t make much of a splash. There’s something…something happened in its New York opening, and the first reviewers were quite negative about the film.
I’m a big fan of Arendt, or I should say I try to understand Arendt and learn from Arendt. So I didn’t pay any attention to the reviews and I went to see the movie with fourteen other people in the movie house in Boston. I thought it was a wonderful movie, and as movies are hard to make about thinkers I thought it was wonderful. But what was interesting is when I was in Tokyo, the movie was a hit. And in fact the theaters were packed by feminists, Japanese friends said. And I said, “Oh gosh, that’s great. Why?” She said it’s because of Fukushima. It’s because of the reactor meltdown in the aftermath of the terrible tsunami in 2011. And because of that, people are thinking about accountability.
So in Tokyo, lots of people were going to see the movie Hannah Arendt because it allowed them to make connections to her thoughts, her deep and relevant thoughts about accountability. They were thinking about TEPCO, which is the big Tokyo electrical power utility, and the executives who did not act accountably, and the government officials who did not act accountable.
But when I was thinking about accountability and thinking about Arendt, I was then thinking about disposability. To be the disposer, for any of us to turn into disposers—and I think all of us should imagine we could always turn into the disposers. We could be the disposable, but we could also be the disposers. And for that we have to really think hard about Arendt’s warnings to all of us. And the warning I think Arendt offers us, a timely one, is that you become a disposer if you begin to look at photographs of people and you just see masses without any stories or any names. You become a disposer if you begin to talk about people as categories. You become a disposer when you can no longer tolerate complexity, and that means individual people’s lives.
So Arendt in Tokyo was a very good wake-up call for me. I then started reading and rereading new interviews, newly-translated interviews by Arendt. And she talks about disposers as people who become functionaries. And you become a functionary, you become an Eichmann, you become a functionary, you become a mid-level executive with the Tokyo power company. You become a disposer if you can be turned into a functionary. And you’re turned into a functionary if you’re no longer willing or able to think of what your actions will do in the lives of other people. So, any of us could become a functionary. Most of us today are being urged to become functionaries. And we have to be alert, as Arendt would tell us. We have to be alert to remember names, be open to voices, be tolerant of and even cultivate complexity. Especially the kind of complexity that makes us uncomfortable.