Patchwork Yokohama
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
          the colon.

          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
          Japanese womenfolk.

          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
          its database.

          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
          Australian one.

          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.