Selected Writings

Soba Restaurant in SOHO, 911 and Susan Sontag

“You don’t have to come anymore. You are a scholar, not a waiter.”

It was in the last week that the owner of Soba (buckwheat-noodle) Restaurant in SOHO told me this. After I had worked for two month as an apprentice waiter, it happened. Probably it was because of the accumulation of some small mistakes I had made, which the owner of the three-star restaurant could no longer stand.

I, a curator, started to work at the restaurant because I found out that this is Susan Sontag’s favorite restaurant. I felt that I must pass my thesis, which I wrote in graduate school by hand. This thesis is true painstaking work, which took up all my time.

I had been wondering why Susan Sontag supported NATO’s aerial bombing against Yugoslavia, since I was so active for peace. I also wondered why she is so popular in Japan and the United States. As my research went further, I started to realize that she did something participant’s subjective idea, which is being self-righteous without understanding the situation.

She was so sensitive when she saw the phrase “genocide” in the newspaper, and supported Bosnia, which she labeled as the victim of the conflict, and called the Serbian government “fascist.” As testimony of Serb genocide, she quoted an article written by not well known journalist Roy Gutman about concentration camp and genocide, but this article itself was a frame-up. I realized these truths through research. At the back of it, there is a War PR company in Washington D.C., and Sontag was controlled by them. As far as I know, I could not find an article which addressed this story in the States.

Maybe she does not know the truth, and if so, that’s the problem. I felt that I must tell the truth to her, by any means.

However, Sontag was in the hospital and struggling with a relapse of cancer, so while I was working there for two months, she did not show up.

After I was fired, I grabbed the thesis, which I had hidden behind an employee’s locker, and talked to the owner.

“I, ah… I have a story to tell you. The reason why I started to work at this restaurant is that I wanted to see Susan Sontag.”

I continued, and talked to the marveled owner about my wondering why Sontag supported NATO’s bombing, my research in Yugoslavia, and also the passion which which I wanted to talk to her.

“Well, I understand your passion, but I cannot do anything. Ms. Sontag is just my personal customer.”

Then, he told me the following story.

Because of the September 11th attacks, the area surrounding the World Trade Center suffered catastrophic damage, since the restaurants and the stores could not attract enough customers. In SOHO, the bad smell was not swept away for more than a week. This restaurant is not an exception, and the customers who had regularly been its patrons had just stopped, and the restaurant faced financial difficulties.

Then, the owner of the restaurant sent a letter to the patrons. It said that after the terrorism, we do not have enough customers, and we are facing difficulties, but I will not close the shop early. Even if there are no customers, we will keep the light on until late. So please stop by anytime.

The first person who reacted to this letter was Susan Sotag. She said that the restaurant was steadfast, and started to come to the restaurant more than two times per week, until the restaurant returned to the full house it was before the attacks. Also Yoko Ono, another one of its patrons, reserved the restaurant for the birthday party of Sean Lennon to contribute to the sales of the restaurant.

“So, the relationship between me and my customers was not built in a day. I have lots of obligation which I cannot return enough in my whole life. So, I cannot do anything about this. If you have a chance to pass this thesis, it will be that you have to work for more than a year, and they will start to remember your name, and if the customers started to ask, “Where is Shinya today?” then you can approach them. You understand?”

The gay owner talked to me. Then, he told me that he made visits to Sontag’s hospital, but if he goes there he just leaves flowers and never visits her himself because of her health condition.

However, this is such a good episode to illustrate the character of Susan Sontag.

There are some people who are facing difficulties because of the 9/11 terrorism, so she helped them in a subjective way. However, when we reflect calmly on the situation, all the restaurants in New York City were facing difficulties after the terrorism. This soba restaurant is not only the restaurant which faced difficulties. That is to say, her action was not to support the restaurant in New York City, but to help her friend.

This is similar to the case of Sontag’s support of Bosnian government. She supported Bosnia, and called Serbia “fascist” in her book, even if the then President of Bosnia, Herzegovina Izetbegovic, was a firm nationalist.

When Sarajevo faced siege and shelling by Serbia, she helped Sarajevo in her subjective way. However, when we think the situation in calmness, supporting Sarajevo and supporting the aerial bombing of NATO against Serbia helped to break up the sovereign state of Yugoslavia, and casualties also appeared on the Serbian side. That is to say, she supported NATO bombing to save Sarajevo, or to save her friends in Sarajevo.

Her theory is like this. If we do not intervene in Yugoslavia now, much more people will be killed, so some casualties are unavoidable. Fewer casualties are better, so let’s choose the way which causes less casualties.

What worries me individually is that this theory is similar to the one which justifies the dropping of atomic bomb to Japan, a view which I sometimes hear in the United States. That is, if an atomic bomb had not been dropped, probably Japan would have fought on. If the battle continued on mainland Japan, the number of casualties would have been more than 500,000 people. Therefore, the dropping of atomic bomb is the symbol of the rational victory which led Japan to surrender and caused fewer casualties. This is the theory.

However, there is no argument that violence is happening there. Also there is no clue whether the predicted number was correct or not. Moreover, if they were asked whether you can say this theory in front of casualties, of course, it is no.

Moreover, there is also a problem of the strategy of Europe, which, when attacking Serbia, did not admit the independence of Kosovo. If European countries admit the independence of Kosovo, then they would have to accept the separate independence of the Basque region, Chechnya, etc.

I will stop this endless argument now, but I think that Sontag was in the trap of having been a participant in Sarajevo. She is one of the theatrical people who are moved by subjective feelings. She is not a cool-headed philosopher. Probably, this may be one factor why the art community in the United States and Japan likes her story.

In a survey by the National Arts Journalism Program by Columbia University made in 2002, 200 American art critics were asked to rank the most influential art critics in the world of art history, and Susan Sontag was at the top in the category of “Recognition.” From this result, I feel the lack of theory in the United States. I had felt such this all the time while I was in graduate school at New York University.

Or for many American people, the word “history“ may mean the history after the independence of U.S., or for the art historian, it means the history after the 60’s. Here in the United States, art is not the product of quiet logic, but the accumulation of subjective performances.

When Sontag was scorned as Osama Bin Sontag in the United States as a result of her opposition to air strikes against Afghanistan, possibly this buckwheat-noodles restaurant was her only place to relax. Moreover, probably, the owner who fired me welcomed her with a big smile.

When the rumor spread that SARS had landed in Chinatown in New York City , I avoided going there for a while. Then, I realized that this is not a true story, and read the newspaper article which said the rumor badly damaged Chinatown. I then began to visit Chinatown more often, naturally. I am sure that a certain element of subjectivity was also involved in my simple action. Then I suddenly started to ask myself, whether it was the truly right decision.

I am not likely to escape the problem of subjectivity and experience for the time being. New York City may be the place which was made for us to consider these questions.

I truly hope for Susan Sontag’s recovery.