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How Japanese Rope Bondage Culture Developed Outside of Western BDSM

Santa left a Taiwanese rope bondage book by 小林绳雾 under the Christmas tree for Master. Amongst the step-by-step illustrations, the author spends some time to understand the subtle difference between Western BDSM culture and Asia’s SM Culture. The book is in Chinese, but it’s a very interesting look at that topic, so I thought it would be nice to write a short article and translate some of the thoughts into English.

Bondage, torment and eroticism are part of the natural calling of many people involved in BDSM, however, the actual methods used for this are subtly derived and evolved from the individual’s social background. Although we often see the world as one big homogeneous melting-pot, it’s really not, and history and culture have made Japanese SM’s culture somewhat different to its Western counterpart.

In the West, latex, shackles, leather and metal restraints have historically been the symbolic fashion identifier within BDSM. If you want to place modern (post 1950s) BDSM with older historic events, you might think of slavery in the US, or the Inquisition or witch hunts in Europe. Forged tools of torture have been around for a long time. In Japan, these materials were rare, and so you have old architecture built without a single nail. Their tool for most things was the rope. Ropes and bondage have always been a part of Japan’s everyday practice. If you visit a Japanese Shinto shrine, you’ll see a big rope that hangs across the entrance, a symbol of protection of the area that keeps the bad spirits from entering.

Another Japanese tradition is the art of wrapping. The beauty and technique of wrapping, and presentation in general, is very important in Japanese culture. A kimono has no buttons. Layer by layer it wraps around the human body from inside to outside, following many complex cultural rules. You might be aware of furoshiki, which is the Japanese art of wrapping things with cloth. In many ways, the respect paid to these techniques makes the presentation of an object more important than the object itself.

Both of these elements are brought together in Japanese rope culture, called 捕縄術(Hojojutsu), and we looked at some of the historical elements of that in The Origins of Shibari Japanese Rope Bondage – For Pain and Pleasure. Throughout history, up to (but less so in) present day, prisoners have always been restrained through rope bondage. The tradition is so ingrained in Japanese culture that there are actually more than 150 sub cultures of Hojojutsu, which originate from different social classes and regions. A Japanese person knowledgeable in Hojojutsu can tell as much about how something is tied as we might be able to tell from accents and vocal patterns.

Although there has been SM throughout history, the origins of what we now call BDSM in the West are really post World War Two. It’s this post-war culture that now forms our idea of what the BDSM community is. However, this isn’t the same in Japanese SM culture.

“Community”, in that sense, was a lot slower to build in Japan, with less opportunity to get together for the exploration and construction of identity. For a long time, pre-internet, ideas did not travel across borders well, and Japan was linguistically and geographically isolated. While the West quickly developed community groups and began discussing conceptual ideas, Japan’s culture led it in a different way, and much of the “education” came from videos and magazines. In much of this, the focus remained on the life and experiences of the 縄師 (Hanashi) or Rope Master and the concepts wrapped up in this continued to be seen as “the true essence of SM”.

That’s not to say that Japan had high walls around it. The terminology and imagery of sadomasochism certainly did begin to influence Japan SM culture starting in the 1950s, and has evolved in some degree in parallel with changes in the West to concepts of BDSM (which underwent some major refinement from the 1980s).

However, because of its unique history, Japan’s BDSM culture retains a unique flavour, and includes deep historical concepts that have not travelled the other way (from Japan to the West). One of these is the concept of 責の研究 (seme no kenkiu). Seme no kenkiu has a lot of similarity with what we would call interrogation, however it is much stronger in its own cultural context. In Western culture, interrogation usually has an end goal (getting information out of an individual), however seme no kenkiu is more of a mix of sadism and interrogation. The literal translation of the Japanese characters is: the research of blaming, mental and physical distress. In seme no kenkiu, the point can be the exploration of the essence of our sentiments on cruelty and violence. It’s a unique type of Japanese art form focused on the beauty of pain.

And this is part of the elegance of Shibari or Japanese rope bondage. It can be elegant and beautiful, perhaps even nurturing and gentle. But with a small twist of the rope here, or tightening of the rope there, it can just as easily be torturous. In Hojojutsu, both of these things are the essence of the ropes, and both can be explored for their own sake.