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Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days And Nights As A Tokyo Hostess

By Anna Kunnecke

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.

© Japan Today

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Love this book with all my heart! Really dives deep into the underworld of Japan while keeping it as interesting as possible. Hope she writes another book soon, I love her writing style.

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Maria, I did read the book and I'm one of those who wasn't too impressed. She had a story to tell and I give her credit for attempting to do that but she was a bit dodgy with too many details; there is no shinkansen to Kamakura, the club is One-Eyed Jacks not One-Eyed Zacks, to name a few. Yes, better editing would have helped but so would better writing and better character development. If she did meet interesting people she sure didn't spend much time talking about them. It was mostly about her and she wasn't really all that interesting, just drunk. There are loads of debauched youth memories out there and loads that are better than hers. The only advantage that she has is that hers took place in a more unusual setting than most.

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Have any of you actually read the book? If not, you're just throwing out your own "overwraught" [sic] prose to inflate your own egos.

I read the book several months ago after reading an amusing interview with Ms Jacobson in Japanzine - she seemed humorous and dry, so I figured the book'd be worth reading. I quite enjoy reading that genre, even though most are by men - Western Man comes to Japan to study martial arts / cycle around / work in an office / drink beer... Yes, all very intellectual.

I enjoyed the book. I found faults with it - she attempts too much, mixing cultural facts with her personal experiences and troubles - but overall found it worth reading.

Other women I recommended it to had very mixed opinions, from really relating to it, to liking it, to not being able to relate to it and finding nothing new in it, to downright hating it.

But at least they all read it.

In the end it comes down to this: Ms Jacobson came to Japan already with issues, got dicked over by people in authority (and the thing with the psychiatrist made everyone's blood boil! Surely illegal, no?), tried out the hostess game, stayed in it, did some interesting stuff as well as some things she regrets, met some interesting people, realised she wasn't living her life as well as she might, went away and addressed / fixed her problems, and is now back in Japan a published author with a legitimate job and a life she is (I guess) happy with. She has written a book which at worst the reader won't like, at least will inform the reader about a way of life they probably have little idea of, and which at best will help someone with similar problems tackle them.

Now isn't that something to applaud?

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Is it really that cliche? What is the difference of her coming to Japan to work as a hostess and then write a book than a man who comes here to renovate an old house in Shikoku and then write a book? At least she used her creativity. If it is such an uninteresting cliche of a book, then don't read it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's the biggest Japan cliche. Come here, hostess and write a book about it.

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The last two hostess bars I didn't go to, the girls were so averse to compensated dating outside the establishment that no agreement was made in a rather short time. These girls do not make more money out of the bar than in it.

A hostess who sleeps with her customer ends this charming game...

She means the man has gotten what he wants, ends this charming cash flow, and simply moves on to spend his money on the next one. This is to be avoided at all costs. Including keeping up the myth that it doesn't happen every night after the shift ends, and every afternoon before the shift starts.

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stanoue - "Japanese ex-pats" in Tokyo? Eh?

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the hostess system is a crude throwback to the geisha. for most customers it was and still is about status and entertainment. whatever extra curricular activity that takes place is between two consenting adults and is no different than any other relationship between men and women. men ultimately pay for it in one form or another. move along folks, nothing to see here.

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Jacobson likens hostessing to teaching English: “Both jobs basically require one to act as both a cultural exhibition and an entertainer.”*

Hah - bet there's some English teachers out there taking offence to that comparison.

The Japanese ex-pats I know here who go to hostess bars - don't have sex. That's not the point of the hostess bar. They go to enjoy the fantasy that younger, pretty girls are interested in them. And as they point out, no girl at a free bar would deign to drink/chat with them. Some of the hostesses have then come along to watch their baseball games on the weekends- and the guys have declared "never paying to drink with them again" - I mean, who pays for something that comes free? But then again, the guys I know wouldnt touch a foreign hostess with a barge pole. Can't imagine a lot of stimulating conversation in that environment...

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Jacobson likens hostessing to teaching English: “Both jobs basically require one to act as both a cultural exhibition and an entertainer.”

If this broad got under ¥200,000 per month instead of per night I might have some sympathy for her.

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Gravitation to alcohol is first difficult to turn back step

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Though occasionally Jacobson’s prose is overblown and she could have used a more ruthless editor,

Good thing the prose in this article is overwraught and not overblown. Could you practically hear me rolling my eyes as I read this?

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I sometimes think gaijin girls become hostesses only so that they can write memoirs about something that English readers are expected to find "exotic" and "enigmatic". Although I think it's a valid entertainment industry job, based on meeting plenty of hostesses off duty, I'd say it ranks up there with shop assistant as one of the dullest and least fulfilling types of employment anyone could find.

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Nice advertisement for her book. Good to see the former Nova teachers branching out into other career fields ;)

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In addition to the obvious skepticism about whether hostesses do or do not sleep with their customers, the review suggests that the folks at St. Martin's Press could have dug deeper on the editing. Most of the flaws the reviewer notes might have been avoided with a more diligent effort on the manuscript before publication.

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here you go..glorification of the oldest business in the world expecting sympathy..

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"no, they really don’t sleep with their customers"...but then.... "A hostess who sleeps with her customers, says Jacobson, is just bad at her job" So...she says they don't but then admits they do...hmmm.

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"no, they really don’t sleep with their customers"

so it is not a realistic book then?

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