Bar Flower by Lea Jacobson St Martin's Press, HK$200 In Japan, where formality and rigid social mores rule everyday life, everyone has their place, especially when it comes to commercial affairs of the heart and flesh. There are geisha, hostesses and whores and they are not to be confused. The white-faced geisha are career professionals, often starting their training after secondary school or university. They study poise and delicacy, practise traditional arts and play instruments such as the three-stringed shamisen. They don't do sex. Prostitution, at the other end of the scale, also has its hierarchies, with soap houses, sexual play-acting and image bars aplenty. Nightclub hostesses fall somewhere between geisha and whores. Although nowhere near as mysterious and traditional as geisha, they don't sell sex either. They tease. It was in this world that American, 20-something East Asian studies student Lea Jacobson, fluent in Japanese, landed in 2003 to teach English. With a history of depression, eating disorders and self-harm, she was unprepared for the straitjacketing imposed by the rigid culture. Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days and Nights as a Tokyo Nightclub Hostess, shows her coming unstuck almost from the beginning. From a background of safely confiding in shrinks, she doesn't think twice about telling a Japanese doctor she is scared of flying and needs medication to overcome it. Bad mistake. The doctor tells her employer she was on drugs in the US and is 'abnormal' in a society where normality is more important than sushi, and she is fired. Incensed at the lack of confidentiality but stubborn and courageous in equal proportion, Jacobson decides to work as a hostess, landing a job at The Palace on Tokyo's Ginza strip. Although hostessing doesn't involve sex in the coitus sense, its aim is to keep men 'panting', as Jacobson puts it, with rituals a few rungs down from those of the geisha. 'We had to attract regular customers by pretending to have relationships with them, to be in love with them,' she writes. The game involves satisfying whims, from flirting and flattery to hot towels and plenty of alcohol. Teaming up with Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Filipinas and at least one Japanese hostess, Jacobson learns the ropes under the guidance of a mamasan who rules with military ruthlessness: 'It was a most terrifying scene on nights when Mama Destiny would pace back and forth in front of the waiting table ... as if she was a drill sergeant or a prison guard,' Jacobson writes of her early hostessing experience. 'At times, when she ordered us to change our dresses, shoes, or headpieces, her criticisms were immensely lacking in compassion or tact, employing phrases like, 'Those shoes are ugly,' 'Your dress is dirty' or 'Your hair looks like a prostitute's.'' Jacobson finds herself a hit with the men who visit to 'relax' expensively because there are few Americans working as hostesses. And it is in the explanation of why there are so few that we receive the best insight into the east-west cultural divide. Jacobson explains that not only would most Americans find it 'hard to believe that there is no sex or touching involved in this kind of work', but that 'ours is not a culture of obedience ... most American women are not used to playing such subservient roles'. But, sex or not, sinking into a world of fantasy and alcohol is not without its risks and Jacobson, who, we learn quickly, is ever the rebel, breaks the house rules and goes out of the city on a dohan - an arranged date - with a man clearly besotted by her, home-made pepper spray in her handbag just in case. 'Looking back, my self-preservation instincts could have been more intact,' she writes, the dangers of hostessing brought home by the murder of British hostess Lucie Blackman, who in 2000 had been working in a Tokyo bar. Part travel book, part memoir, this is an entertaining, well-written book with a streak of dark humour. Witness Jacobson describing the automated room-key machines in Tokyo love hotels: 'Some say that one day the machine might display pictures of potential sex partners as well. This is not science fiction, my readers; mechanical sex is the logical result when the human condition mates with advanced capitalism.'