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Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008

Memoirs of a modern-day geisha

Lea Jacobson's tell-all of her life in Tokyo's shadows reveals more than she bargained for


Staff writer
BAR FLOWER: My Decadently Destructive Days and Nights as a Tokyo Nightclub Hostess, by Lea Jacobson. St. Martin's Press, 2008, 352 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

There will never be a lack of visitors to Japan who want to share their impressions in print; and the stream of tears from confessional memoirs will never run dry. The demand for such books is obviously strong, but so is the risk of the expat/confessor sounding like a fool. To tackle both genres in one book doubles that risk. Fortunately, Lea Jacobson's gamble in "Bar Flower" pays off.

Jacobson's journey begins when she arrives in Japan to teach at the Happy Learning School of English in Kanagawa. The school arranges for her to live with a Japanese host family, and as a recent English/Japanese graduate with high expectations, she immediately immerses herself in the language and customs. It doesn't take long, however, before she feels the strain of fitting into a foreign society. After an argument with a Japanese psychiatrist who informs her school of her medical history, Jacobson is fired and forced to move elsewhere.

Feeling betrayed by the psychiatrist's breach of confidentiality and horrified at her school's swiftness to label her with a "mental condition" of debilitating proportion, Jacobson stops trying to conform. Instead, she lets her curiosity about Japan guide her actions — whether they be good of bad. She breaks rules, asks impertinent questions, goes places that she shouldn't and says things that she knows no Japanese would get away with. Somewhere along the way she is also lured to hostessing by promises of a fun time and easy money.

"If you like drinking, it's perfect for you," a friend tells her. Unfortunately for Jacobson, she liked drinking a little too much, which made hostessing the worst possible job for her to take.

As we follow Jacobson's walk on the wild side — her bar crawls, drunken arguments, extravagant spending sprees and self-destructive behavior — we also get an up-close look at the more shadowy, less-seen parts of Japanese society. This makes "Bar Flower" an odd piece of confessional work as Jacobson slips into her former inebriated self only to then step back and make astute societal observations in moments of sobriety. It's a difficult balance to keep, and on the rare occasion she loses it. But between the vodkas, her wit and insights make any uncomfortable moment more than worthwhile.

She compares the pressure on hostesses to conform to stereotypes to that of geisha, noting "we strove to become the image of femininity that society had created for us and for that our company was a high-priced commodity." This is a comparison she returns to often, and in busting the common misconception that geisha and hostesses are merely glorified prostitutes, she gives a sympathetic portrayal of hostesses as well as some of their clients. Most of her colleagues, a mix of street-smart Eastern Europeans and Filipinos, hostess to support their families and some of her own clients offer genuine friendship without expecting anything in return.

There is still, of course, the sexism to hostessing that most women would find unbearable, but Jacobson points out that it's sexism that makes clients gullible. She is able to flutter her eyelids and sweet-talk men into "dohan" (paid dinner dates), on which she says she eventually became "dependent" on for sustenance. "I managed to maintain my alcoholism solely on drinks that were bought for me by men," she also writes. "Tall men, short men, ugly men, pretty men — the beer still tasted the same."

"Bar Flower" takes on a more serious tone when it inevitably arrives at the topic of Lucie Blackman, the British hostess whose gruesome murder in 2000 made international headlines. While Jacobson doesn't deny there is an element of risk involved, she sheds light on the unfair misconceptions about hostessing and the distorted portrayals of Blackman that were promulgated by both Western and Japanese media. As if to help restore Blackman's reputation, Blackman's story is not introduced until more than halfway through her memoir, by which point readers have already gained a better understanding of hostesses and their work.

Blackman also serves as a reminder to Jacobson that as a hostess, she is fortunate. At their worst, her clients are arrogant or juvenile, but they are never dangerous or abusive. The biggest threat to Jacobson is in fact herself — her inexplicable low self-esteem, which she only makes worse with alcohol.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, Jacobson eventually stops hostessing. But it is not until she reads the first draft of her memoir that she recognizes she has a drinking problem. No matter how entertaining her anecdotes of inebriation are, it's still a relief to discover that she ends up in AA meetings, attempting to work out her insecurities and issues. As a badge of honor posted on her blog, Geisha, Interrupted, testifies, she has been sober since Jan. 3, 2007, which is just as much of a notable achievement as this remarkable memoir.



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