Culture

5 Misconceptions About Shibari, Japanese Rope Bondage

Think shibari is only for freaks and sadists? Think again!

By 8 min read

Kinkster or no, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of “shibari,” Japanese rope bondage. Perhaps you’ve perused pictures of this sensual and twisted practice, puzzling over what on earth could possibly inspire people to bind and gag each other for fun. Maybe you’ve even felt embarrassingly enchanted by this mysterious erotic pastime and wish to know more. Fear not, curious reader, for all your questions are about to be answered! Let’s dive right in and debunk five of the most common misconceptions about shibari.

1. It’s not actually called shibari.

First things first, it’s called kinbaku in Japan.

That’s right—the one thing you thought you did know is wrong! Down is up and up is down in the topsy-turvy world of Japanese rope bondage, where people enjoy things like excruciating pain or getting hung upside for uncomfortable periods of time. But more on that later.

Shibari isn’t the wrong term for Japanese rope bondage per se; it’s just it doesn’t quite cut it. Shibari (or shibaru) is a general term in Japanese meaning “to tie.” Kinbaku is a more specific word which involves weaving intricate knots for binding and suspending people for erotic and sometimes artistic purposes. Kin (緊) means “tight” and baku (縛) is “restraint.”

The term shibari has become much more common internationally as the practice has spread and been adapted for non-Japanese audiences and aficionados. If you say “shibari” in Japan people will probably know what you’re talking about, but “kinbaku” is definitely preferred among locals.

2. It’s not some sacred, ancient art every Japanese person secretly participates in.

Photo:
Milla Reika (rope top) and Aristasy (bottom) doing bondage in Nagoya.

Many have dubbed kinbaku an “ancient Japanese knot-tying technique” but that’s not quite accurate. Though kinbaku has its roots in a practice called hojojitsu used to bind prisoners in Japan a few hundred years ago, kinbaku as we know it wasn’t even a thing until the early 1900s. It didn’t become popular in Japan until the post-war period of the 1950s. For instance, Japanese people and American soldiers traded pulp magazines depicting tied up women during the occupation.

Modern kinbaku is done for pleasure, not punishment, and involves at least two people: the “rope top” or “rigger” (the dominant person doing the tying) and the “rope bottom” (the submissive person being tied). Sometimes these two people switch roles; other times, more than one person might tie or get tied up at the same time.

Occasionally there is an audience. Whatever the combination, whenever these parties play together, their tryst — even if it’s totally private — is called a “scene.” Consent is an important part of every scene, something that was absent in the hojojitsu days of yore.

Regular live performances, fetish bars, workshops, and services involving kinbaku can be found all around Japan. However, not everyone does it or even thinks it’s normal. In fact, it’s a very niche underground practice. Kinbaku is a facet of BDSM (the “B” stands for bondage), and like much of S&M culture, the inner workings are very hush-hush. Though growing it’s still a very misunderstood scene. Many participants keep their involvement in it on the down low because of shame and harassment. This is the case in Japan as much as anywhere else.

3. Not everyone is in it for the sex.

I’m serious! While kinbaku is, by nature, very sexy, it doesn’t always end in bumping and grinding. That’s not to say it can’t, but there are a whole host of other perfectly good reasons to practice kinbaku that don’t involve any shagging at all.

For some, kinbaku is first and foremost an art. Many riggers spend years if not decades honing their skills. The most renowned kinbaku practitioners are exceptionally proficient with their hands as well as reading their play partner’s desires and dislikes. To many, the word kinbaku describes an art as well as a fetish and you can’t have one without the other. For these people, things like performing live or perfecting their personal style, are of great importance.

For some, kinbaku is first and foremost an art… Others simply participate in bondage as a means of stress relief or relaxation.

For others, it is a way of building intimacy and trust with another human. Many rope tops and bottoms are also sexual partners in real life, yet in some cases these two only work together on a professional level. Or, they are close personally but choose not to copulate. Examples of this might be a dominatrix and her client, or two performance artists. Some people even have play partners who are separate from their romantic partners, perhaps because their loved one can’t fulfill a particular fetish.

Others simply participate in bondage as a means of stress relief or relaxation. You read that right!

Getting tied up doesn’t have to be painful at all. Picture a tightly swaddled baby or imagine snuggling under warm blankets on a cold day. To many, that’s how getting tied up feels. It’s like getting a big hug. The release of letting someone else bind and control you can be very freeing. Plus, getting tied up can actually release tons of yummy endorphins creating a euphoric high. This feeling is akin to floating and is known as “subspace.”

4. It isn’t dangerous (unless you want it to be).

Kinbaku may look dangerous, but when practiced correctly it’s totally harmless. Since there are many possible risks (nerve damage or suffocation if the ropes are too tight, for instance), there are tons of established safety measures in place.

Riggers train a great deal at workshops or with rope masters before binding or suspending another human. They also have a deep understanding of human anatomy. Proper riggers take risks very seriously and remain highly alert while tying in order to protect the rope bottom.

Kinbaku may seem easy for a bottom, but this person isn’t completely passive. Rope bottoms are often very fit and flexible and generally have a high pain tolerance. The rigger often checks in with the bottom to make sure they’re comfortable. If a bottom’s hands are going numb or they wish to stop a scene for any other reason, they have to remain lucid enough to ask the rigger to undo their bonds (which can be difficult if floating in subspace). In this way, the bottom has a measure of control as well. It’s up to both the top and bottom to work together to create a pleasurable scene.

Torture certainly enters the scene at times. Plenty of rope bottoms like to be whipped, spanked, doused in hot wax, or even electrocuted while tied. Yet, this is always consensual and practiced with care. Two important tenets of bondage (and BDSM in general) highlight this: negotiation and aftercare.

Negotiation involves extensive communication between play partners before, during, and after scenes. Aftercare is the practice of riggers embracing, massaging, and caressing bottoms after play. This is especially helpful if a scene was painful in some way.

5. The people who participate aren’t psychotic, demented, or otherwise damaged.

Well, I can’t speak for everyone… maybe some of them are. However, the perception that everyone who is into BDSM is either super sadistic, experienced some kind of childhood trauma or has a mental health problem needs to be bound and gagged. For good.

Not everyone who is into kink fits the stereotype. Sure leather looks cool and you can’t go wrong with an all-black ensemble. But kinksters come in all shapes and styles. Suited salary workers, casually dressed college students, bashful nerds… you name it, they’ve participated.

Modeling is Uika Yugasumi. Performing the bondage is Milla Reika.

It’s not all about looks, of course. Kinbaku masters, dominatrixes, and fetish models may seem intimidating, but they’re often delightful and down to earth. From hobbyists to professionals, rope enthusiasts come from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds and belong to all kinds of cliques and careers. Most of them had childhoods filled with love or that were okay at worst. Only occasionally do freaks and creeps show up at events and anyone causing trouble or discomfort is promptly kicked out. Abusers disguised as rope tops are not tolerated. The kinbaku community looks out for each other.

There you have it. Kinky people are just like you! Feeling less confused or creeped out? Maybe even a little curious about trying it out for yourself? While caution is advised for anyone looking to enter the shibari scene, it is truly a safe and rewarding pastime when done right. If it’s still got your stomach tied up in knots that’s totally fine as long as you’re treating those who are into with respect. Or else beware – you might get tied up and tickled against your will!

Now that you know what shibari isn’t, look for our upcoming blog to learn more about what it is! In the meantime, let us know any questions you have about this topic in the comments below.

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