15. Women's Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
It should have come as no surprise, but when Vince and
Connie visited the Women's Forum just a couple of minutes
walk from Totsuka Station, the first thing to catch his eye
was a computer system with databases on just about
everything you'd ever want to know about Japan - Japanese
Culture and Events, Traditional Recipes, Restaurants, Daily
Information, Sports Facilities and so forth.
The Women' Forum also had a gymnasium, a conference room, a
clinic and a handicrafts room. The clinic offered breast
cancer checks and information about fertility and birth
control. There was also an anatomical model of a woman as
opposed to the regulation male or neuter models. Vince took
a section of it apart and had difficulty getting it back
together until someone pointed out that the womb went behind
Vince had always believed that the Japanese and the Germans
had lost the war but won the peace. While Japanese men had
definitely taken the credit for this, Connie had read
somewhere that the reason behind Japan's extraordinary
economic recovery was the hard work and frugality of
Vince didn't need any books to tell him this. Japanese women
who had lived through the war era had an aura of competence
and practicality that astounded him. He had a theory that if
you wanted to know something you should ask a woman of 70
and, if she couldn't tell you off the top of her head, she'd
give someone a call and have the facts at your finger tips
in a matter of minutes. In short, she was a walking version
of the Women's Forum computer with a knowledge base to match
Vince liked to think that this was a skill that was acquired
over a lifetime and that the older women got in Japan, the
more practical information they had stored away. Indeed, he
had discovered that women in their 50's generally seemed
more aware than women in their 40's who still held a sharp
edge on 30 year olds. The scale went right down to his own
students who seemed to know less about Japan than he did
In comparison, the menfolk knew nothing. How many times had
he sat through some blundering fool talking about something
he had little or no idea of, because he was the man and was
therefore the more important person. One of the women behind
him often prompted him during his speech and when it came to
question time, she would fill you in on the real low down.
Vince believed that women had the edge on men in this regard
because of networking. The male system was vertical. Every
junior (kohai) had his senior (senpai). This was great if
you were intent on climbing the hierarchy, but little good
for the practicalities of life. Japanese women developed
networks of friends. Everybody knew someone else or a
relative who could help. Vince knew the moment he asked Mrs.
Matsumoto about how tatami was made, she would find some
friend who had an uncle who ran a tatamiya.
If there was a network of women in Japan, and Vince was
certain that there was, Connie was instantly a part of it as
soon as they were installed in Yokohama. Vince hovered on
the periphery of the society of Japanese men, always welcome
up to a point, but never beyond. He could brag at work that
he spent more time socialising with his Japanese friends
than with his colleagues or other foreigners, but the truth
was that almost all of these were Connie's friends.
How did she do it? Vince had no real idea, but thought back
to his mother's friends and how everyone in the community
was allotted a talent - Mrs. McKinley baked the best scones
in town while Mrs. Worthington made the best pavlovas. Vince
had been quite aware that his own mother made far better
scones than Mrs. McKinley, but he knew that there was
unspoken rule that no one should upstage Mrs. McKinley at
her allotted talent. He had seen exactly the same thing in
his brief stint as a teacher in a country high school in
Australia. Every girl had her special skill. Ruth's was
public speaking, Kylie's was textiles, Mandy's was Maths.
And there was no way that you could ever induce Ruth to do
better at Maths than Mandy or Kylie to speak better than
Vince suspected the same was true in Japan - maybe women
everywhere had that sense of community, a feeling that
everyone needed their place and the belief they were
important. Vince had the feeling that Japanese men had once
shared this sense of community, but now, as super commuter
salarymen, they had become divorced from it. In any case,
Connie was soon a member of the Co-op home delivery grocery
service group, a tennis club and several morning coffee
sessions in which gossip was exchanged.
Without even seeking it, she soon discovered that she was
earning half again what Vince made trundling to Shinjuku
every day, just with housewife and primary school student
classes in their own three room apartment. Furthermore,
Connie was always making deals. She had one woman making her
clothes in exchange for English lessons while another gave
her cooking lessons.
Finally, Connie arrived home one day and announced to Vince
that she was having sumie lessons with a woman who wanted
English lessons in return. Vince frowned. He knew all too
well that Connie had a bad habit of overbooking herself.
"Sumie?" he queried.
"Yes, you know, ink painting."
Vince didn't know, but he was soon to find out. Connie soon
had an ink block, ink and brushes on the table at any spare
moment practising from a painting that her sensei, Mrs.
Odori, had painted for her. Connie would try to imitate the
original with slow, steady brush strokes, but before each
one was finished, she'd frown and say:
"I'm never going to get this!"
Vince often thought that Connie's botches were better than
the originals by Odori-sensei, but he knew better than to
say so, lest he give away his ignorance of classical
Japanese refinements. He'd been caught before while admiring
Shodo or Japanese calligraphy. He always praised the
inferior works until he discovered that the rule of thumb
was if you could read it, it was no good. If it looked like
fast dripping black water, it was usually excellent. He'd
also discovered that, when regarding Japanese ceramics, the
masterpiece was always the one that looked as if it had come
straight from a kindergarten kiln. If it didn't, it was
probably moulded clay and he should have been looking at the
Vince was not to meet Odori-sensei until Connie exhibited
her first work at a Kenmin Hall exhibition. Connie explained
that it wasn't really her own work at all. She had started
it, but Odori-sensei had retouched it to the point where it
would be presentable enough to go into the exhibition. Vince
was quite frankly appalled that Connie would allow anyone to
tamper with something she'd painted herself and then exhibit
it under her own name.
He was soon learn why. He was whisked away from Connie as
soon as he walked into the room and guided around the
exhibition. Mrs. Odori only came up to his left nipple, but
she quite clearly dominated all who gathered around her,
including Connie and, to his own immense bewilderment,
She explained that sumie was in fact a Zen art. Through long
hours of practice, the brush strokes became such second
nature that it was as if the mind, the hand and the brush
moved as one. Vince was trying to spot Connie's piece, but
Odori-sensei had already moved him onto a series that her
own daughter had painted. They showed, she told Vince, the
four major plants in sumie - the plum (ume), the bamboo
(take), the chrysanthemum (kiku) and the orchid (ran).
"Of course, there are a lot of other flowers too, irises,
camelias, wistarias, magnolias, but once you have mastered
these four, you have mastered sumie."
Vince felt like asking Mrs. Odori whether Connie could ever
master sumie if someone else retouched their work all the
time, but he knew as this tiny woman with the pipelike voice
bustled him about that he would hardly dare. Vince suddenly
discovered that he had a Japanese mother-in-law to match his
Mrs. Odori took Connie and Vince everywhere. They spent obon
with her family and visited the family graves went to her
granddaughter's wedding, saw Kabuki theatre with her, toured
Nagano prefecture with her, went to see the hydrangeas near
Hakone with her. Everything was Odori-sensei's idea, done at
her speed and in the correct Odori order. There was no
deviation allowed from the central plan and if someone else
planned something that just happened to conflict, then it
had to be changed.
As Connie pointed out, Odori-sensei had a heart of gold, but
Vince could see right through her. She was an obatarian, one
of those dragons from the city who push their way to the
front of queues and muscle into you on the train.
"Now," Vince waggled a finger at Connie, "there's a Zen art
for you, sitting down on the train."
"If sitting down on the train is a Zen art, so is
"My point exactly," Vince exclaimed.
"And what exactly is your point?"
"The seat in front of you is vacated. For a matter of
seconds, you contemplate it with the air of someone who does
not believe it exists, that there is in fact someone still
sitting there. Then, in one single graceful movement, you
reach up to the overhead rack with your right hand and pull
down your brief case, swivelling as you do so in a
semi-circle before gently touching down on the seat as if it
were part of your buttocks, that the seat has been severed
unnaturally from them and this was the longed for, yearned
for point of time in which they were to be reunited, like
the arms being reattached to the Venus de Milo ..."
"So, sitting down on the train is a Zen art?"
"Then, wham ... Zen interruptus, an obatarian has swooped
into the seat you were aiming for, like an eagle attacking a
Vince, however, had to admire obatarians. They feared no
man, flirted with no man, cared only for what was theirs.
They only asked that the world should live by their rules,
tried and tested, Vince reflected. he seriously wondered
about whether he should himself become an obatarian.