The current perception is that prostitution has come to be something that financially poor women do in order to survive. However, one could have probably said the same thing in ancient times.
In olden times, not only were there prostitutes, but there were also prostitutes who were regarded as sacred. Two famous examples are the Babylonian religion, in particular the beliefs of the temple of Mylitta, in ancient Mesopotamia (presently the Middle East), and Hinduism (particularly prostitution temples in India, etc.).
The example that’s closest to the Japanese people, though, is the Shinto religion. Shinto is also a religion that connects sacred rituals and prostitution in its beliefs.
This Shinto mentality, tolerant of prostitution, has grown silent since the Meiji period, when the religion became transformed into state-sanctioned Shinto. This spiritual belief, however, still remains throughout Japan.
Polytheism and monotheism
It is generally possible to categorize the religions of the world as monotheistic religions that believe in a single god and polytheistic religions that believe in multiple gods.
The most well-known monotheisms are Christianity and Islam. Examples of polytheisms are Greek mythology, Shinto, and Hinduism. Depending on how you look at it, Buddhism could be considered as either a monotheism or a polytheism.
Most religions that relate sex and religion are polytheisms. Monotheisms tend to have strict commandments. The majority have a commandment that forbids adultery.
Polytheistic religions, on the other hand, tend to be tolerant with respect to prostitution and have multiple gods, each of which has a specific field that he/she looks after. As a result, there are many cases when there is a specific god who is related to sex.
Also, in these religions, sex is directly linked to the perpetuation of one’s descendants. Japan had also been accepting of this idea, and directly connected sex to the Shino religion.
Shinto and sex
In Shino, shrines are the principal places of worship. There were once Shinto beliefs that prostitution was sacred, and there used to be lodgings for prostitutes on the shrine grounds. This trend continued from the end of the Heian period, and even though there are no longer lodgings on the grounds, it is still not odd to see what remain of the booths.
Obviously, these sights would be unimaginable in monotheistic temples. Hinduism, which is also a polytheistic religion, has prostitution temples where prostitutes called Devadasi work. Unlike Shinto, however, many of these women work as prostitutes because they are bound by the caste system.
Prostitution temples are simply driven by the economy, but, in Shinto, prostitution, itself, is directly linked to religious rituals.
State-sanctioned Shinto and modern thinking
Before the Meiji period, there was no such thing as a proper Shinto doctrine. Every region believed in different gods and passed down different customs. Because of this, Shinto was more of a common understanding than a religion.
At the dawn of the Meiji period, however, the Japanese government created a state-sanctioned version of Shinto with the Emperor as the supreme god. This was a necessary mechanism to unite Japan into a unified nation.
At the same time, the Japanese government worked to inject the Christian morals inherited from the West into the everyday lives of its citizens. In this way, they succeeded in creating a capitalist society resembling that of Western civilization.
Perception regarding prostitution became an issue due to the course of these events. Not just prostitution, but sex, itself, was taboo under Christian morality. In accordance with Christion ideals, sexual activities were not possible outside the home.
However, the state made Shinto the national religion. Of course, under Shinto, prostitution was accepted. Because of this, it was difficult to strictly forbid such activities.
In this way, the Japanese people held an extremely tolerant perception of not only prostitution, but the sex industry in general. Proof of this lies in the lack of people who get angry at seeing overt brothel districts, etc. scattered around them.
Prostitution is not a culture indigenous to Japan. However, one could say that Japanese perceptions regarding prostitution are very different than those of other countries.