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.