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Like many countries, prostitution is illegal in Japan, at least on paper. Legal experts say it is hard for police to crack down on prostitution because it is tricky to verify if a couple had consensual or compensated sex. It also defines sex exclusively as vaginal intercourse. Thus other paid sexual acts are not illegal. According to National Police Agency statistics, people were arrested for violating the Prostitution Prevention Law in The law requires such businesses to register with police and operate only within their registered category.
It also bans people under age 18 from working or entering fuzoku establishments. All sex businesses except soaplands abide by the prostitution law because they do not provide straight intercourse and limit other services to mainly massages.
To dodge the law, soapland operators claim their male clients and their hired masseuses perform sex as couples who have grown fond of each other. The client then is usually asked to pay a massage-service fee directly to the masseuse — giving the pretense that the woman is working on her own and the soapland owner is not running a brothel. Nagai noted the legal framework on prostitution varies worldwide.
Sudan, for instance, punishes prostitutes with death, but the same act is legal and out in the open in the Netherlands. Many observers say police avoid cracking down hard on prostitution mainly because it is considered a necessary evil and they would rather keep the industry on a loose leash than let the market go underground. Prostitution goes back to ancient times, and there were only local-level laws against selling sex until the prostitution law was enacted in the postwar period.
According to Nagai, 16th century feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the first to demarcate part of Kyoto as a red-light district.