Shibari: The Art Of Rope Bondage - CherryDTV
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Shibari: The Art Of Rope Bondage

Taut lines, complex designs, and knots that would make a sailor blush are bound together in the art of Shibari, or erotic Japanese rope bondage. The practice is part sculpture, performance, and dance, and these days, you don’t have to be kinky to have seen it. Artists and enthusiasts have adopted the practice, bringing doses to the public in fashion magazines and art galleries alike.

Shibari, aka kinbaku to the uninitiated, might seem like the latest in pop-BDSM. But the tradition has evolved over centuries before making it to the smutty platforms of social media. 

In ancient Japan, noble warriors practiced a secret and/or honorable martial art to respectfully create rank appropriate restraints. Or exquisitely arcane torture ties in the field of battle, upon their equally honourable enemies. Today it’s considered an art form respected in Japan, practiced by wizened old men in dark glasses. Masters of this art, upon kimono-clad young women who are naturally submissive and willing. Audiences gather to serenely admire this in tatami matted, austerely beautiful performance spaces. Acolytes practice for years in traditional schools under strict tutelage of these masters for years before they are even allowed to touch rope to nubile flesh…. It is deep and spiritual, as so many things in Japan are, like Zen, like tea ceremonies, like the people and the entire culture.’The Seductive art Of Japanese Bondage.

Shibari History

Kinbaku, meaning tight binding, is a type of Japanese bondage, appreciated for both its aesthetic and sexual appeal. The technique has its roots in the feudal Edo Era. But was not a sexualized art form until the twentieth century. In Japan, rope has played a significant cultural role for thousands of years. Of course it was used for practical reasons, such as for operating pulleys and holding one’s kimono shut, but also for spiritual reasons too: The Shinto shimenawa (purifying rope), or the border of the sumo ring.

Kinbaku uses rope to decoratively tie and restrain the body for the purpose of erotic pleasure. Seasoned Kinbaku masters or Nawashi say the art takes years to master and is difficult to spot in the world of mass produced BDSM pornography today. Only in the West, the term Shibari is usedwhich doesn’t refer to any specific type of tying in Japan.

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Restraint & Punishment

During the Edo Period, the dominant samurai class used rope in combat and to restrain prisoners of war in a martial art called Hojōjutsu. A brutal practice that bears little resemblance to the kinbaku of today. At the time, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, official Tokugawa crime laws used knots to torture and extort confessions from captives and to display alleged criminals. Each public punishment specifically fit the crime. So the tie used to administer it created a legible, symbolic admonition for crowds of onlookers.

Rope was used as both restraint and punishment. Certain techniques were developed, including some which continue to be used today, like the “shrimp tie”. But bondage as a sexual art wasn’t widespread until the early 1900s. At that time, Kabuki theatre began to stylise this torture bondage, known as Hojōjutsu, by adding it to their acts. However, Hojōjutsu needed to be toned down both for safety’s sake and so that it was visually appealing to the audience.

Pornography in print media, as illustration and photography, took off during the post-war era. Underground bondage fetish culture and kinbaku-bi found an audience in magazines like Kitan Club and Uramado, and has had a loyal following ever since. Today, kinbaku is also appreciated as a stage performance, contemporary art, and remains a fascinating facet of fetish culture.

THIS SEMINAL ILLUSTRATION, 10 TIED WOMEN BY KITA REIKO, APPEARED IN KITAN CLUB IN 1952. CIRCULATION EXPLODED FOLLOWING THE ISSUE IT APPEARED IN, INFLUENCING THE MAGAZINE'S SM DIRECTION. COURTESY OF MASTER "K"
THIS SEMINAL ILLUSTRATION, 10 TIED WOMEN BY KITA REIKO, APPEARED IN KITAN CLUB IN 1952. CIRCULATION EXPLODED FOLLOWING THE ISSUE IT APPEARED IN, INFLUENCING THE MAGAZINE’S SM DIRECTION. COURTESY OF MASTER “K”

Altered State Of Shibari

To the untrained eye, kinbaku doesn’t look all that different from its roots in torture, but practitioners glorify the benefits and pleasures of “sub space,” in which submissive partners can achieve a meditative, altered state of mind that is deeply therapeutic, finding, like so many BDSM enthusiasts, liberation in bondage. When it’s done properly, kinbaku is not painful at all. It’s completely sensual. You can come out of a kinbaku session feeling every bit as relaxed as you do coming out of a good hot yoga practice. Shibari techniques stimulate erogenous zones, releasing endorphins and dopamine into the brain.

© JOHN WILLIE, COURTESY OF BÉLIER PRESS
© JOHN WILLIE, COURTESY OF BÉLIER PRESS

For the Shibari movement to reduce shame and stigma, and bring forth human liberation in sexual expression, is slowly influencing the greater society, and his is beautiful!

There are, however, not so delightful aspects to the popularity of Shibari today. Something seemingly beautiful is hiding an ugly history and we’re not talking about it. Or rather, those who do speak out are dismissed or even discredited. 

The Problematic Aspects Of Shibari  

First; the colonised, romanticised story told about Shibari ignored the reality that the images from Japan that inspire so many of us, were and are produced by the adult industry in Japan – by sex workers, for the hetero-male gaze. Images created as visual or performative erotic entertainment is commonly understood by people in Japan – but taken out of context by those outside of Japan.

It’s a pleasure product created for voyeuristic interests. People in Japan, including those who love it, understand that this is entertainment produced by people in the margins – and would consider it silly to equate Shibari to “high cultural arts”. Much like American “low brow” art forms, which can seep into the mainstream from the shunned margins – think of pin-up art and low riders.  When it’s incorporated into mainstream art or recognised arts, such as in Araki’s work, it’s the shock of transgressiveness that holds the charge.  

Yes, Shibari images are exported from the smut makers.

Second; published and working rope masters, mistresses, performers, and models are part of the larger sex work industries in Japan. To delay this, or to gloss over this, has more to do with the discomfort and bias against sex work of the person denying it.

Third; Japan is a misogynistic and sexist country, where sexual harassment, violence, and women’s disempowerment is normalised. At the same time, men feel disenfranchised after the massive cultural upheaval after World War II. Sexual assault and lack of consent are so common, while reporting and prosecution so rare. When the rapist is convicted it makes national headlines. Then the women are harassed further, often to exile or suicide.

Shibari images from Japan are created in this cultural context. Consent, as we know it, doesn’t happen for women in the photo studios, bondage bars, and rope studios in Japan. This disempowerment is deeply internalised. Enjoy the imagery whilst understating the cultural context they were created in. 

Woman in Shibari

End Thought

Shibari as a modern day practice involves on an enormous amount of responsibility both for the practitioner and the rope bunny. The most important thing is communication, trust, empathy and a real understanding before any play is to begin. Beyond knowing basic anatomy and the location of nerve centers, that means checking in with someone on a physical and psychological level, such as asking if a submissive is on medication or if they have significant past injuries. Then, and more importantly, a practitioner must know how to adjust techniques to address particular needs. This form of BDSM play is NOT for beginners and takes years to master. Play safe and be responsible!

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