NSFW Unraveling the Mysteries of Kinbaku, the Erotic Art of Japanese Rope Bondage

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The following article contains nudity and may not be suitable for all audiences

On a cold winter’s night in Osaka, Japan, a woman strips down to nothing but her underwear and kneels down on a tatami floor. Behind her bends another woman expertly detangling a coil of rope. Her black hair cascades down a narrow back and her kohl-winged eyes focus on her quarry.

As the rope unravels, her small hands move to the almost-naked women’s shoulders and she begins gently massaging them. She then deftly pulls the woman’s arms behind her back and works on binding her hands. Gentleness turns to forcefulness as she ties the woman limb by limb, her motions practiced and efficient.

Soon, the kneeling woman is lifted off the floor, suspended only by a few carabiners and a network of intersecting ropes. She gasps as her body is contorted by the tightening rope, her cries a mixture of pain and pleasure.

A towering mural depicting two face-to-face wolves with bared teeth glares down at the onlookers—a young foreign-exchange student from Europe, a Japanese businessman, his tie loose and sleeves rolled up, and a few others who have gathered around but say nothing. Instead, they quietly watch or practice knots themselves. On the opposite wall are toys: whips, paddles, and a bed of nails.

Photo: Hajime Kinoko

I’ve found myself at the weekly kinbaku, or rope bondage, workshop at Senkaku Salon in Osaka hosted by rope artist Milla Reika—certainly a memorable way to unwind on a Tuesday night.

Kinbaku (緊縛) is an erotic art and pleasure practice done around the world. Yet a lot of confusion and misconception surrounds kinbaku—also referred to as shibari (縛り)—and what it really is, leaving it concealed in a darkness that can appear threatening. But Japanese rope bondage is a safe, sexy and exciting activity—proven by its journey from sacred practice to modern-day art and everything in between.

Yomikiri Romance, dated January 1953, supervised by Seiu Ito

The origins of kinbaku

Ropes are a sacred ornamental tool long used in many decorative Japanese practices. The oldest pottery ever discovered comes from Japan’s Jomon Period (14000 – 300 BCE). Jomon, meaning “cord patterned,” was so named because the ceramics were decorated by pressing ropes into the clay. Sacred Shinto sites and shrines are adorned with ropes. Gifts, kimono, and even samurai’s top knots have all involved ornate ties.

Complex human binding techniques were invented sometime around the Edo era (1603-1868). Hojojutsu, the martial art of rope restraint, was used during this period by samurai and law enforcement to capture criminals. Techniques showcased both a deep understanding of human anatomy and a desire to create aesthetically pleasing arrangements.

Kabuki, a traditional Japanese dance-drama, is also tied to kinbaku. Early kabuki plays (circa 1600) were very erotic. Many also involved people getting tied up, though at the time this wasn’t overtly sexual. Later, in the early 1900s, kabuki plays depicting Edo-period dramas began to work a simplified version of hojojutsu into performances. This was to make the knots more visible—and appealing—to the audience. The performative and aesthetic aspects make this the earliest manifestation of modern-day kinbaku.

Ito Seiu – Father of Modern Kinbaku | Source: アサヒグラフ

Kinbaku as a sensual practice

Kinbaku became sexualized later in the 20th century thanks to Seiu Ito.

At age 14, the man who would become the “father of modern kinbaku” saw a kabuki play involving bondage as torture. Ito was so taken with this image it influenced his art throughout his life. His works, which imitated the ukiyo-e style, involved bound, disheveled women whom he first photographed in compromising positions before painting. He famously painted his pregnant wife hanging from ropes—suspension is now a very common kinbaku practice.

Though erotic art had been created for centuries in Japan, Ito’s was the first to be explicitly sadomasochistic. Other artists in the ’20s and ’30s latched on to similar themes in what became the avant-garde Ero-Guro (“erotic grotesque”) movement.

After WWII, American and Japanese fetish magazines depicting bound women began to circulate, causing such imagery to become more widespread. Minomura Ko, a writer, editor, and publisher for such a magazine (called Kitan Club Magazine), who also went by the name Kita Reiko, became one of the most famous and influential early rope masters to popularize the art.

Japanese rope bondage evolved into what it is today—an intimate (but sometimes performative) sensual act involving the power dynamics at play between a dominant rope top (the person tying, also known as a “rigger”) and a submissive rope bottom (or “model”).

Photo: Hajime Kinoko

Modern-day rope bondage

Ropes continue to hold a spiritual power in Japanese society, but this is now entwined with aspects like art and sexuality. The latter is a topic simultaneously sacred and taboo, enticing and revolting. Not only can shibari be sexual, but it also falls into the forbidden category of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism). Kinbaku has remained an underground and misunderstood pastime because of this.

Who is doing it?

It can be equally difficult to gauge what kind of people are into rope bondage. While men tend to fall into the role of rope top and women rope bottom, it’s not uncommon to find the roles reversed, same-sex pairings, and non-binary participants. There are plenty of submissive men out there, as is evident by the existence of the dominatrix in Japan, and people of all genders can fall into the category of “switch,” meaning they enjoy both dominant and submissive roles.

Photo:

During my time in Japan spent at rope shows and interviewing people for this piece, I came across individuals young and old, expat and native, shy and outgoing, leather-clad and comfiest in sweatpants and most of what’s in between. Most of these people don’t regularly wear fishnet or have a troubling history of mental health, as they are often portrayed in the media. Bondage lovers come from all walks of life and may act and appear totally “normal” in day to day life.

In extreme cases, abusers may enter the kinbaku scene to cover up their proclivities for coercion and violence. If a rope rigger in a dominant role refuses to negotiate with a submissive model before a “scene” (consensual BDSM play between two or more people) or they cross boundaries during play, it’s not safe to work with that person.

One infamous case concerns Nobuyoshi Araki, a lauded but controversial photographer known for his shibari-related work. He’s tied and shot celebrities like Lady Gaga, Bjork and Japanese-American model Kiko Mizuhara, but his most famous collaborator is a model named KaoRi. She spoke out against him during the #MeToo movement in 2018 claiming that he used his position of power to coerce her into posing for images that she was not comfortable with along with ignoring requests for privacy and neglecting to pay her. While she didn’t accuse him of outward sexual assault, this kind of power harassment is often confused with BDSM, so it’s important to know the difference.

Photo: Hajime Kinoko

Because of all this secrecy combined with potential risks, it can be hard for newbies to enter the scene. Luckily, there are resources.

In Japan, workshops, bars, and clubs are made specifically for clientele who are into kinbaku. Some of these venues can be expensive, especially for men. In a space where a proportionately large number of women are being bound and even beaten, it’s considered a safety measure to charge more for males to weed out anyone who may solely be dropping by to ogle or take advantage. High fees for men help ensure only serious voyeurs and practitioners show up, making these venues generally safe spaces for BDSM learning and play.

Be warned, however, while many international communities make a big deal about things like safewords and consent, such concepts are unfortunately not a priority at many Japanese establishments. Most foreign spaces designed for rope play don’t even allow alcohol—meanwhile, many Japanese venues in the same vein are straight-up bars. Beginners are advised to use caution when entering the BDSM scene and make sure whoever they’re dealing with is experienced, transparent, and open to communication (as well as sober).

Photo: Hajime Kinoko

Understanding the risks and rewards of bondage

Though it can be weird to imagine, for some pain equals pleasure.

Chemicals that make people feel good, like endorphins and adrenaline, are released when harm is inflicted in order to increase pain tolerance. For masochists (people who are sexually aroused by pain and discomfort), the result is akin to a runner’s high or an adrenaline rush, making seemingly unpleasant activities—like being used, humiliated, or restrained—feel incredible. In BDSM, this altered state is called “subspace,” a euphoric feeling in which pain and problems disappear leaving only a sense of dizzy joy.

The possible pain associated with thrill is why many people
do it.

Subspace can result from being tied, hurt, or a combination of both. While bound, some enjoy hot wax drips, getting whipped, or other excruciating forms of play. Yet, even when a scene appears harmful or unpleasant, it should be enjoyable for the bottom. The possible pain associated with thrill is why many people do it.

Bottoms often fall into subspace during a scene, allowing them to enjoy themselves. Consent is another big factor when is comes to deriving pain from pleasure. Allowing someone to spank you might feel great, but accidentally giving yourself a papercut? Ouch.

What it’s like to be tied up

I’ve been tied up, but I wanted to talk to a more experienced rope bottom to gain more insight and an outside perspective. Ageha, a 26-year-old Japanese woman, has been getting tied up at local Osaka clubs and salons for about a year, yet she seems to already possess a deep knowledge and understanding of the artform.

“Let me say first that I believe that there are many kinds of kinbaku,” she said. “Painfully tight semenawa [torture rope], eronawa [erotic rope] stressing sexual feelings, decorative rope as (artful) expression, and so on.”

She noted that her answers are only regarding semenawa, and the reasons she does it reflect its complexities.

Kinbaku is communication, just like conversation or sex.

“I enjoy the emotional exchange,” she said. “Kinbaku is communication, just like conversation or sex. The person tying me adapts the way they tie based on watching my reactions. I get to know not just what they express on the surface, but through the way they tie, I also get to know their thoughts and emotions.”

And how does she feels while bound? Words that came to mind for Ageha were “anticipation, suspense, fear, excitement, relief.”

“For example, in a progression from gote [the initial binding which generally involves the hands tied behind the back] to suspension, to floor work, to untying, I will have many different emotions,” she continued. “I feel like my emotions are being controlled by the person tying me.”

She goes on to describe how she experiences subspace, and how she feels after a scene.

“I feel different,” she explained. “I can reach a feeling of exhilaration within a pleasant fatigue. Also, I [have] come to like the person who tied me more.”

Not only can enduring a stressful or painful experience result in a cathartic release that feels amazing—scientific studies also show that shared pain brings individuals closer together. Ageha’s description resonates with what other rope bottoms have recounted time and time again.

Pain as pleasure, not as punishment

Though pain is the desired effect, serious, permanent, and unwanted damage is avoided at all costs.

Rope bondage can be quite strenuous and even dangerous, both for the rope top and bottom, so both have to constantly communicate any discomfort. Nerve damage is the most common affliction. Tight ropes can cut off circulation—if caught early, this might only result in a light tingling (that “pins and needles” feeling), but in extreme cases this could lead to a loss of motor function. Moreover, someone could fall from a suspension if the ropes aren’t secured correctly.

Photo: Hajime Kinoko

It’s hard to gauge how often serious accidents happen during play. Because people involved in BDSM are often embarrassed to talk about it publicly, many even refrain from discussing injuries with their doctor. There’s even a well-known “S&M practitioner” and chiropractor in Japan known as “Doctor Golden” who specializes in treating BDSM related injuries.

Mental distress can occur, too. If a rope top crosses a boundary—for example, if they spontaneously start choking the bottom with no prior discussion on the matter—this could trigger a traumatic memory.

Alternatively, if a bottom stays quiet during a scene they’re not enjoying, and the top later finds out they were causing their partner distress, this could lead to immense feelings of guilt for the rope top (not to mention the bottom’s discomfort).

Just because someone identifies as a sadist (someone who derives pleasure from hurting others) doesn’t mean they enjoy causing others genuine harm. Responsible tops and bottoms are both acutely aware of these risks, as well as each other’s feelings.

Careful planning and safety measures are involved to prevent unwanted injury as much as possible—physical and mental. Just like with bungee jumping or scuba diving, the activity can be fun as long as the risks are managed. Nevertheless, accidents, unfortunately, can still occur.

Meet Milla Reika: A modern-day kink-and-performance artist

Many people learn to tie as a hobby or to spice up their sex lives; others commit their entire livelihoods to teaching or performing it.

One well-known rope artist based in Osaka has made a career out of kinbaku in Japan.

Milla Reika has been a student of shibari for almost a decade and now teaches the art at Senkaku, her private studio located in Osaka’s downtown Namba district. I met her nearby at a cafe to discuss her work and why she does it.

Photo: Mozu
Milla Reika

An assertive Australian native, Reika dominated our conversation like she does her clients. Rather than coming off as intimidating, however, her confidence and straightforwardness left me at ease. I asked why she got into BDSM here rather than in her home country.

“My entrance into the world of bondage and S&M and discovery of a deeper part of myself began in Japan, and therefore, I feel a closer affinity with Japanese culture when it comes to this aspect of myself,” she explained.

Teaching workshops and private lessons are her main gig. She also stages theatrical productions incorporating rope bondage at her own events as well at various BDSM bars and venues around Japan. She calls these original choreographed performances “Artful Restraint.”

She filled me in on the kind of people who attend her workshops and shows.

“These events draw a mix of people, some interested in learning, some interested in experiencing,” she said. “I don’t like the word ‘customers’ but for lack of a better word I would say that I have an even balance of either single, married or poly female and male customers, couples and transgender persons. While a larger majority tend to be heterosexual, more and more people who identify as LGBTQ are approaching me.”

When it comes to private sessions, she said her clients are predominantly heterosexual older males or transgender.

Reika, who uses a stage name, makes it clear she doesn’t necessarily consider her “Artful Restraint” performances and “kinbaku” the same thing.

The latter is typically done privately at home between two people. During her stage performances, however, Reika not only has to be mindful of the model, but she also has to entertain a third party—the audience. For this reason, certain compromises must be made, especially when it comes to appearances. Artful Restraint productions are flashy and dramatic; kinbaku sessions are sensual and private.

Yet, there’s a trend among some modern kinbaku rope riggers to prioritize appearances over pleasure. For Reika, there’s really no excuse for people who confuse kinbaku for nothing more than something that looks pretty.

“It really pisses me off,” she said.

Many shibari practitioners around the world care only about what looks good, she explains, so they miss the point entirely of what kinbaku should be. Kinbaku is primarily about “restraint and dominance,” said Reika.

Reika believes shibari should always incorporate an erotic element that is pleasurable for both the top and bottom. Though often on display, either in live performances or on social media, kinbaku is ultimately an intimate and sensual act. If the top and bottom aren’t getting any enjoyment out of it, there’s no point—even if it does look good on Instagram.

It’s nothing more than masturbation for
the rope tier

Reika was taught by local rope masters to question why each rope is used in a scene. Does it feel good to the model? Is it necessary or arousing? If it’s merely there to look nice, it’s nothing more than “masturbation for the rope tier,” she says with a laugh.

Aesthetics are always important, but every rope also needs to have a function. Even with hojojutsu, the ties were both functional and about the aesthetic, she pointed out.

“Allowing someone to tie you up is a submissive act,” she said. “[It takes a] high level of responsibility to dominate them…if that’s what they’re desiring. [You’re] taking control of their safety.”

For these reasons, she cautions that learning and practicing shibari shouldn’t be taken lightly. But that’s all part of the fun.

Back at the weekly rope night in Osaka, it’s getting late. Reika, in a red silk kimono and stylish updo, slowly lowers the suspended, underwear-clad rope model back onto the tatami.

She unravels each rope with the utmost care as her charge revels in subspace, eyes closed and seemingly swimming in bliss. As the final rope comes undone, Reika takes the women into her arms, and they embrace on the floor.

The scene has come to an end.

The model puts her clothes back on. The student, the businessman, and the others grab their things and say goodnight with a bow as they exit. It’s back to reality—school, work and other obligations call in the morning. But come next week, they’ll reassemble again.

Terminology

  • Shibari (縛り): literally “to tie”; Japanese rope bondage*
  • Kinbaku (緊縛): “to bind tightly”; the practice of erotic and artistic rope bondage*
  • Rope top/rigger: the person tying (generally dominant)
  • Rope bottom/model: the person getting tied (generally submissive)
  • Switch: someone who expresses both dominant and submissive tendencies
  • Scene: BDSM play between two or more people (the B in BDSM stands for bondage). This can include bondage, roleplay, torture, etc. or some combination.
  • Subspace: a meditative or even high-like state rope bottoms often fall into while being bound. Chemicals like endorphins and dopamine get released into the brain causing feelings of joy and peace.
  • Safeword: a pre-agreed upon word that signals a scene must stop immediately
  • Negotiation: The extensive communication between play partners before, during, and after scenes. During proper BDSM play, all parties are aware of each other’s likes and limits and boundaries are never crossed. If someone is getting slapped or stabbed, it’s because they like it, no matter how much they may be screaming during a scene.
  • Aftercare: After being untied, riggers often embrace and even massage and caress their rope bottoms. This gentle, caring human contact is necessary for the bottom to come out of subspace. Subspace is often compared to a drug high because it can involve a subsequent comedown—the bottom may feel great during a scene, but once it’s over they can crash. Without aftercare, this mental crash can lead to sadness, uncontrollable sobbing, and even lasting trauma.

*Though the term “kinbaku” tends to refer to a more specialized practice and is more popular in Japan, “shibari” and “kinbaku” can be used interchangeably.

Photo: Hajime Kinoko

Rope Bondage
Workshops in Japan

In Tokyo

Kinbaku artist and photographer Hajime Kinoko gives lessons and workshops to foreigners and Japanese. He welcomes inquiries from interested people of any skill level, always taking into consideration the safety and comfort of his students.

Private rope classes

If you are interested in learning more about Kinbaku in Tokyo, you can take a beginners course from Hajime Kinoko. View details here.

Public rope classes and observation

If you are interested in modeling, taking lessons, honing your skills, becoming an instructor or even just watching, there are plenty of options through Hajime Kinoko’s classes. Classes are for any person who has interest in kinbaku on every first Sunday of the month, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., as well as every second and fourth Tuesday of the month, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in Tokyo.

See more about classes, location and pricing here.

In Osaka

Kinbaku lessons and social events

Bilingual rope artist Milla Reika hosts regular workshops and events at her private studio in Namba called Senkaku. Anyone can join her weekly rope lessons and monthly Kinbaku & Fetish Salon (a social event often featuring performances). She also offers private one-on-one or small group lessons at her establishment.

See the events schedule and more on her website.

Fetish bars &
organizations in Japan

For people in other cities, Fetlife.com is a great resource for finding kinky people and activities in your area.

About the featured photographer

Featured in this article are photographs of the work of Japanese kinbaku artist and rigger Hajime Kinoko.

Hajime Kinoko

In 2001, Kinoko “realized the beauty of expression through rope,” and by 2006, he began performing artwork under his current stage name. By 2009, he was performing at events in Japan like the annual music festival Fuji Rock. In 2010, he had his first solo exhibition, “The Young Woman and String,” in Tokyo which gave a new image to the ancient practice of kinbaku—a splash of pop art.

Since around 2012, he started shooting his own photography of the kinbaku he practices and in 2013 Kinoko and his work was featured in a VICE Japan documentary called “Bondage Art with Hajime Kinoko.” The documentary went viral with more than 3 million views on YouTube.

In the past five years, he has gained an international following through various exhibitions, appearances and book releases. His exhibitions and works both in Japan as well as internationally include appearances in the U.S. at the Burningman Festival, at Paris Fashion Week as well as at events for well-known fashion brands like Diesel and Christian Dada. He has also released two photo books, “Red” and “Ichigo Ichie,” which continue to revolutionize the modern world of kinbaku.

Kinoko is renowned for his often colorful rope bondage aesthetics using various types of ropes beyond the traditional, including “art ropes” (strikingly red rope) and “cyber rope,” or glow-in-the-dark rope for kinbaku practices.

View his portfolio: http://shibari.jp/portfolio/index.html


The views and opinions expressed in the text as well as the visuals belong solely to the authors, and not necessarily to the authors’ employer, organization, committee or other group or individual. All photos are copyrighted to the specified author and cannot be reused or reposted for any reason.

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