Sex is a necessity and a pleasure; it’s also a problem. It exalts some, degrades others. It generates offspring. It’s dynamite. Taboos concerning it are as old as humanity. Laws regulating it predate civilization. Nowhere is the human libido absolutely unfettered. Incest is nowhere tolerated, marriage in some form, until very recently, everywhere requisite to socially sanctioned coupling.

Prostitution is called the world’s oldest profession. That it is so testifies to something lacking in marriage. Even in early Japan, where a nobleman could take as many wives as he pleased, the trade flourished. Prostitutes were known as asobi-onna (women of pleasure; asobi for short). A courtier named Oe Yukitoki (955-1010) writes, “The younger women melt men’s hearts with rouge and powder and songs and smiles, while the older women give themselves the jobs of carrying the parasols and poling the boats.”

Boats. It was, in part, a riparian trade. “By the end of the 10th century,” explains historian Janet Goodwin in “Selling Songs and Smiles,” “asobi had developed their distinctive practice of using small boats to stage entertainments for men at ports” on rivers near Kyoto, the capital. She quotes a courtier writing a friend to propose a visit to a boat: “In one evening of delight, we’ll forget that we must grow old.”

Oe continues: “If there are husbands, they censure their wives because their lovers are too few. If there are parents, they wish only that their daughters were fortunate enough to be summoned by many customers. This has become the custom, though no human feeling is involved.”

It sends a pang to his heart. On the one hand, “A tryst in a boat on the waves equals a lifetime of delightful encounters.” On the other, “we must sigh in regret at such a persistent custom. Why don’t we take our hearts that are so fond of making love and embark upon the road to loving wisdom?”

His question echoes down the ages. If we loved wisdom as much as we love love, we’d be very wise indeed. It’s worth sighing over.

Christian Europe and Shinto-Buddhist Japan saw prostitution differently: the former as sin, the latter as art. Sordid economic necessity, it is true, underlay both traditions. Still, there’s no European equivalent to the resplendent gated pleasure quarters that graced, or disgraced, all Japanese cities of any size from the 17th century on. Standards in the best of them were high. Courtesans modeled themselves on the elegant ladies of “The Tale of Genji,” a novel of 10th-century court life. They were entertainers, artists. Sex was one of their arts. The courtesan who was not also a poet, dancer, singer and conversationalist ranked low in, if not out of, a rigid, quasi-aristocratic hierarchy.

Christian and Japanese attitudes regarding prostitution clashed head-on in 1872. When the Maria Luz, a Peruvian ship transporting Chinese coolies, docked at Yokohama for repairs, a coolie jumped overboard, complaining of ill-treatment. The matter came before a Japanese court, whose investigators found that the coolies were indeed treated like slaves. The ship’s lawyer protested. What business was it of Japan’s? And who was Japan to set standards? Didn’t it treat prostitutes like slaves?

It was a telling thrust, recognized as such by Kanagawa Prefecture Deputy Gov. Taku Oe. The pleasure quarters were gilded cages, but cages all the same. The women were chattel, sold more often than not as children by impoverished parents under a patriarchal system of government that accorded the male head of a household absolute authority over its members. The women were not free to come and go. A courtesan’s best hope and highest aspiration was for a well-to-do customer to succumb to her charms, buy her contract and keep her as his own. As late as 1896, the statesman Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909) called licensed prostitution “a splendid custom” — it allowed filial daughters to sacrifice themselves, in fine Confucian fashion, for their families.

Oe was ahead of his time. Inspired by the Maria Luz incident, he crafted legislation banning bonded prostitution in Kanagawa. For a brief time the ban spread nationwide, but tradition dies hard, sometimes not at all. The reform was soon rolled back. The “splendid custom” persisted, impervious to challenges by such parties as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, until the American Occupation that followed World War II.

Christian revulsion finally had its way. On American orders, the licensed quarters were abolished. Not prostitution itself, however. The new setup ostensibly turned the former quasi-slaves into free businesswomen. It was 1872 revisited, with the difference that now most of the business came from American soldiers. So matters stood until 1952, when the Occupation ended. It was a brand new country, with a new Constitution guaranteeing free elections and gender equality. Elections in 1947 brought women into the Diet; in 1953 came more. One issue united them across party lines: prostitution. Hadn’t the time come, once and for all, to put an end to the demeaning commerce in women’s bodies?

No, said many men, some women and all brothel owners. The latter invoked the Constitution’s Article 27: “All people shall have the right and the obligation to work.” Self-serving it may have been, but some prostitutes said the same, one demanding, “Among (reform-minded women legislators) … all done up in their finery, mincing about so proudly … are there any women like us who couldn’t have survived if they hadn’t prostituted themselves?”

There were not, of course, but the reformers’ implicit answer to the challenge of women’s brute survival had been evolving, if not since the days of the asobi-onna boats at least since the Maria Luz. The answer was not prostitution but equal status for women and men. The 1956 Prostitution Prevention Law hardly achieved that. It didn’t even prevent prostitution. But it was a symbolic victory — backed, interestingly enough, by the infant Liberal Democratic Party, as conservative then as now but sensitive, as no governing authority had ever had to be before, to something that had never existed before: a female constituency.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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