Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days And Nights As A Tokyo Hostess
You have to give her credit. Lots of party girls placate themselves by “gathering material” for a memoir that never gets written, but Lea Jacobson actually untangled herself from alcohol and depression, quit her job as a Tokyo bar hostess, found a new way to pay the bills, and then wrote a book about it.
The result is a swooping, lurching memoir, which seems fairly appropriate considering that she is inebriated through much of her story. The book takes on a solemn tone at about the same time that Jacobson decides to get sober, and if it loses something in vivacity, it gains more than it loses in insight.
“Taking shit with grace” — that’s how Jacobson describes the job of a hostess. The downside of hostessing may be putting up with misogynist, condescending, demeaning attitudes, but it’s the upside, too. It’s how you get drinks, presents and a salary. Jacobson likens hostessing to teaching English: “Both jobs basically require one to act as both a cultural exhibition and an entertainer.”
If anyone would know, she would; after being fired from her job teaching English at a kindergarten for the heinous crime of consulting a psychotherapist, Jacobson got work at a Tokyo hostess bar. What started as a rowdy way to make rent quickly morphed into an all-consuming lifestyle, and Jacobson found herself trapped in an intricate game in which she was both the contestant and the prize.
Many who pick up a hostess’s memoir will be hoping for some juicy gossip on what really happens after hours, but Jacobson sticks to the party line: no, they really don’t sleep with their customers. (You can practically hear her rolling her eyes.) While some readers may be skeptical, Jacobson’s explanation makes perfect sense. The thrill for customers is the chase, the dance and the negotiation. He pays in drinks and gifts, and she provides him with an ever-fresh fantasy. A hostess who sleeps with her customer ends this charming game. She morphs from a miraculously accommodating vision into a flesh-and-blood mistress, one who needs to be financially supported, talked to and argued with. In short, when her clothes come off, she loses the very aura of fantasy that made her so appealing in the first place.
A hostess who sleeps with her customers, says Jacobson, is just bad at her job. There is, however, an important caveat: all bets are off if the bar is in Shinjuku. Girls who work in more upscale areas like Ginza or Akasaka apparently play by the rules, Tokyo urban legend notwithstanding.
The specter of Lucie Blackman, the murdered English hostess who worked at a well-known hostess bar in Roppongi, haunts the popular imagination — and it haunts “Bar Flower,” too. Still, Jacobson contends that young women are actually safer working within the strict confines of a hostess bar than they are partying at watering holes like 911. Under the mercenary gaze of a mama-san, the rules are clear and the boundaries drawn in stone: no touching, no kissing; the man buys the drinks, and in return he gets flattering female companionship.
In fact, Jacobson has obligatory sex only once in the narrative — and not with a customer. Reluctantly going on a “normal” date, she finds herself succumbing to the oldest assumption in the male chauvinist handbook: dinner plus champagne equals sex. After the staged theater of the hostess bar, her own boundaries are almost nonexistent.
So why does she stay? The contrast between women in dire economic straits and someone like Jacobson, an American with a graduate degree, is one of the most compelling tensions throughout the book. Jacobson explores the interweaving factors of low self-esteem, inertia, a need for male approval, and the cycle of her addiction to alcohol, but never quite untangles the knot at the center: she drinks to help her get through the job, but why does she have the job in the first place? Before she can completely unravel this conundrum, and also before she succumbs to a total alcoholic breakdown, Jacobson attends an AA meeting, feels the first lift of possibility, and begins her long journey away from alcohol.
Though occasionally Jacobson’s prose is overblown and she could have used a more ruthless editor, “Bar Flower” offers special treats for those familiar with Tokyo. She tackles the exoticized arena of the hostess bar with neither the reverence of most Japanophiles nor the jaded contempt of many long-term expats. She likes it, she sees its absurdity, and it makes her sad or it makes her laugh — but it never makes her turn off. The intensity of her curiosity is what lingers on my tongue long after the more awkward passages are forgotten. It’s a bit like the taste of champagne, followed by a “chuhai” chaser for the walk home — but without the headache.