ROPE NOTES - Nawa Shibari or Hojo-jutsu or Hojojutsu

Excerpt from 'Fetters Files' by Jim Stewart, © March 2000 - all rights reserved worldwide

So-called "Japanese Rope Bondage" as a topic should perhaps be indexed in any SM oriented literature under 'S' for so-called or 'P' for pseudo. The ancient tradition of ritualised rope restraint (Hojo-jutsu), with different configurations and rope colours signifying the status of the prisoner and even the nature of the crime, is shrouded in history and some deliberate secrecy. Reliable information on the subject is thin on the ground and, in modern Japan the original function is now not only totally obsolete but probably illegal in terms of Human Rights.

On the other hand, the erotic appeal of these elaborately ritualistic practices struck a powerful chord in mid-20th century S&M communities. Precisely when the few available authentic pictures and modern interpretations first entered the consciousness of the homoerotic sub-culture I'm not sure. This information is, I hope, already recorded in the National Leather Archive. Japanese-style rope harnesses were certainly appearing in bars and magazine pictures by the early Sixties.

The physical, visual, tactile or emotional turn-on of any sort of roping covers a lot of different territories. Used in games of Cops and Robbers rope is usually just a practical control device in the absence of handcuffs. In grown-up Cowboys & Indian or urban commando scenarios the tying may extend to punishment, torture or challenge. Would-be Escape Artists like to be left to struggle but are sometimes disappointed when they succeed. Wrestling somebody into ropes involves skill, stamina and only appeals to a minority. Intricate decorative Japanese-style body roping can be dismissed as Macramé by those who take more pleasure in what happens after somebody is restrained. But for lovers of tactile, suspenseful and protracted physical restraint games, the process and resulting physical predicament can be the main focus of the event.

The few available authentic Hojo-jutsu illustrations have sparked a lot of creative imagination, because the ancient drawings offer very little practical help. So, improvisation on a stylistic theme has spawned a sub-category in bondage game playing which perhaps needs a more appropriate name.

Complicated rope harnesses can be fun or agony to wear socially. Worn under tight leather, the feel for both the wearer and roaming fingers of a stranger can create their own thrill. Elaborate roping over leather is another stimulating visual statement and physical experience. Such body netting can also be self-applied with a little ingenuity, which opens up the field. Interpretation has become the name of the 'genre'. Even sessions attempting to decode the ancient woodcuts can provide hours of stimulating experimentation.

Three approaches:

The ancient skill or art (jutsu or jitsu?) of making a person captive with rope was something the exponents took pride in different ways.

  1. Against resistance, fighting someone into restraint that was both efficient and aesthetically pleasing demands a high level of skill and practice - a fun possibility.
  2. To create a stressful restraint situation using rope or other materials that become progressively more painful, has been a means of punishment or extracting information in many cultures for centuries. In Hojo-jutsu various forms of wrapping and knotting were designed to exert growing discomfort - again, in modern 'bondage-for-pleasure' terms, a field for experimentation between willing participants
  3. A passively accepted 'ritualised' process, perhaps less dynamic but for many an infinitely satisfying approach, that can offer protracted sensual stimulation to people of a particular mind-set. As with mummification and other elaborate wrapping, strapping and bundling-up, the visual and tactile process and end-result offers limitless alternatives to the creatively inclined.

Most recent homoerotic drawings from Japan seem more SM oriented than historically accurate. Potentially painful body positions (for example with one leg roped bent and the other attached to some high anchor-point) are probably based on known historic evidence but this is hard to track down. However, they're hot to look at, experiment with and even experience. In other drawings from current Japanese sources temporary piercing and blood also figure quite often. Perhaps more authentically in current homo-art, tattoos (which in Japan signify connections with the criminal underworld) usually figure dramatically.

Western tourists in Japan whether looking for authentic historic information or a slice of modern B&D life are often frustrated. Some modern Japanese bars specialise in erotic extensions of the Hojo-jutsu rope-tie traditions but these are always small and usually do not welcome 'Westerners'. The current Japanese Scene exists but precisely what goes on there and how authentic it is, is hard to find out. However, several very useful Web Sites do focus on the subject. offers an excellent introduction to the topic and the site is linked to, a site in English where a lot of valuable additional information can be found. Both site hosts welcome exchange of ideas from intelligent sources. See also Hojojutsu "Butterfly" rope harness worn tight

A heterosexual subscription site offers authentic looking ties on women at and in Seattle is hosted by another enthusiast with ideas of his own and contacts in fields of art and kinkery.

In the USA bondage world, those who can attune to an 'oriental' mind-set when it comes to the aesthetics and jutsu of a Scene (the word meaning art or skill in Japanese e.g. Martial Arts = skills), can generate a special kind of enjoyment for themselves and their lucky play-partner. In particular, precision, symmetry, calm tactile and sensual manipulation of mind and body becomes ritualistic. The gradual process of taking or accepting control and then developing a predicament that occupies various senses can be a rewarding experience for all involved. Should this be categorised as S&M? Physical restraint is certainly a major factor in Japanese-style rope play. In Western interpretations the action can spread to include use of other materials: In addition to gleaming white, black, coloured or hairy hemp rope other textures and visual elements can enhance the aesthetic effect of calmly elaborate wrapping. Narrow oiled leather strips (thongs), coloured plastic-covered electrical cable, black and yellow police crime-scene tape. Alternatively, linen, silk or latex bands wrapped systematically and inexorably, can confine, enmesh, encase or just limit the recipient. Wet linen that shrinks as it dries or glass-fibre that sets rock solid can be part of a calm, deliberate aesthetic mind-altering experience.

Imaginative scene-extensions such as massage or teasing, abrasions, temporary piercings, tickling or cum-control are then an 'intensification' of the physical restraint. Is the mind-set different from when restraint is specifically in preparation for these and other more conventional activities such as hot wax or clothespins? A fine point to consider.

My repeated argument about the 'bondage' mind-set being different from what is too often lumped together as S'n'M'n'Bondage, I repeat again. Of course interests overlap, but physical restraint as a pleasurable pastime is too often inhibited by the mistaken idea that pain, abuse or 'domination' must be part of every scene. S&M or Master/Slave game-playing can include many elements described here, but the mind-set of what I think of as Japanese-style physical restraint can be looked at as an end in itself if that's where your preferences lie.

The name of the games that focus on giving pleasure through the process of creating and sustaining physical restraint predicaments accurately can not accurately be called Sadomasochism? To people who enjoy being physically restrained the means, manner, materials contribute to specifically different trips. Being allowed to savour the sensual progression of the experience is often interrupted by ill judged outside distractions. This doesn't mean such scenes are not shared. The Doer and the Done-to build a rapport; the roper and the roped are at times physically and mentally linked; the netter and the netted can share the results in a variety of ways that engage all the senses. The visual and tactile are essential to Hojo-jutsu style physical restraint, but also the sound and smell and even taste of cotton rope or hemp or leather thongs can add a new dimension to a category of homoerotic game-playing perhaps too limitingly called Japanese Rope Bondage.

Is there already another name for such games? How do people communicate their preference for slow, subtle, tactile, visually aesthetic 'bondage'? There's a lot of it going on.

© Jim Stewart - March 2000

Jim Stewart is a British theatre director with many English, Dutch and American productions to his credit. In 1976 he founded Fetters in the UK and USA. He now travels the world designing play-spaces and leading workshops.

He is interested in comparing notes with others who are exploring elements of formalised rope bondage. He is eager to learn more about take-down and capture techniques, fast applied ropes and ties designed to become progressively more stressful.

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