The Origins of Shibari

Japan has long held a rich tradition of using rope, from every day to spiritual uses. Metal was once very expensive in Japan, and so rope became a viable alternative, from the tying of samurai armor, to the wrapping of sake barrels, to Shinto religious shrines where rope encircles the places where the spirits reside.  

The origins of Japanese rope bondage also known as Shibari (縛り) can be traced back to the Edo period (1600- late 1800). This was a period of relative peace, and became characterized by economic growth, strict social orders, and an increase in arts and culture. During this time sokubaku (bondage) was practiced as a form of restraint, punishment and torture. There were no jails, therefore this is how prisoners were confined. Bondage evolved into a martial art known as Hojo-jutsu (art of restraint) and was used by the samurai who had become law enforcement under the Tokugawa administration. 

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Under the Tokugawa Government, four kinds of punishment were common:

  • Whipping/flogging
  • Prisoners were made to kneel while a heavy rock was placed on the body
  • Rope restriction in a position known as Ebi Shibari (shrimp tie)
  • Full suspension with ropes

Rope was used to create poor circulation, immobility, and humiliating positions for prisoners. Different types of binding and different colors of rope were used to identify the types of crimes the prisoner had committed and the social class to which he belonged. It is also said that the different colors of rope had more spiritual connotations, of the seasons, the four directions and the animal guardians of the four directions. Bound prisoners being publicly paraded did leave its mark on society, and inevitably rope bondage and capture and punishment started to appear in Japanese literature, graphic arts, and drama.

Erotic Transformation of Bondage in Japan

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In the later part of the Edo period, bondage was also used to torment female hostages taken in war, usually the wives of high ranking officials or the daughters of rival lords. Bondage evolved into extreme forms of humiliation for the hostage who was often tied in very exposed positions and painful suspensions. Traditionally, the Samurai did not tie the prisoner, but ordered the servants to, while the Master waited to examine and possibly use her as he desired, further adding to the disgrace. Eroticization of rope tying started in the 1800’s, when members of the high social classes would tie naked women in subdued and demeaning positions, make drawings of them, and indulge themselves sexually. These gatherings were called komon sarashi shibari. Very rare examples of such drawings have surfaced in Ukiyo-e (17th century erotic woodblock print) collections.

Another intriguing piece of Japanese rope bondage history is to be found in ancient police records. In the 17th century, traditional bondage was used by doomed love couples in ritualistic suicides. "Forbidden lovers" (usually from different social classes) would use the shinju tie (breast harness) to bind themselves together and plunge into a river, a lake or the sea. For quite some time such ritual suicides were known as the "shinju suicides".

Contemporary Shibari

In the late 1800′s and early 1900′s Hojo-jutsu evolved into the art of erotic bondage known as Kinbaku, being influenced even by western concepts and the legacy of the Marquis de Sade following WWII. Kinbaku became widely popular in Japan in the 1950's through magazines such as Kitan Club and Yomikiri Romance, which published the first naked bondage photographs. In the 1960's, people such as Eikichi Denke began to appear performing live SM shows, often including a large amount of rope bondage. The term Shibari became popularly used in the west in the 1990's to describe the bondage art of Kinbaku. Kinbaku is the more of a traditional term, but the popular use in the west of Shibari has even been re-imported into Japan. Today, Shibari and the western BDSM scene continue to influence each other, and fusion rope bondage styles continue to emerge, as do the practitioners committed to a more traditional discipline. As a side note, the police in Japan today still carry hemp rope in their vehicles in case they need it!