In search of authentic Japanese rope bondage culture

In search of authentic Japanese rope bondage culture
(NSFW) Shibari’s popularity has boomed worldwide. Yet in Tokyo, Kinbaku remains an underground affair, connected to the sex industry and practiced by cult icons like Akira Naka.

We’re in a small room in a Tokyo apartment with traditional tatami flooring. Fifteen spectators are crammed inside, all transfixed by a woman suspended from the ceiling, panting profusely and groaning with pleasure. A well-built, extensively tattooed man is tying the woman in an intricate web of rope. He secures each bind with purpose and precision while looking her straight in the eyes. The man circles the suspended woman, increasing the intensity and tension of the ropes until she tips into a frenzy of pleasure, her eyes rolling backwards into her head. The show continues, with the woman in a state of fevered rapture. Despite the fact she is bound with increasingly severe ties, between each knot she lures the man to her with an intense gaze – eyes like a wild animal – before she finally convulses into an explosive climax.

This is a Kinbaku Japanese rope bondage salon, a small and intimate gathering of sorts that takes place in a private apartment. The two performers are Akira Naka, one of Japan’s veteran kinbakushi (rope riggers), and his model Akane. Naka is something of a cult icon, featuring in one of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s most famous photos, ‘Tattooed fuck’ from his Tokyo Comedy series. Although what Naka and Akane are doing is highly sexually charged, there are many diverse reasons why people enjoy kinbaku, from relaxation to an exhilarating thrill, psychological exploration or to deepen connection with their partner.

Consisting of meticulous knots, web-like patterns and dramatic suspensions, rope is used to capture, encase and excite a consenting partner during BDSM play. In the West, Japanese rope bondage is typically known under the catch-all term Shibari. But kinbaku is less about fashion and more about bondage tying and the intense emotional connection between the tied and their rigger.

Akane

In much the same way as yoga has been stripped of its spiritual depth as it has been embraced around the world, the global shibari boom has seen many layers to this historic practice lost in translation. The shibari hashtag has over a million posts in English, many of which feature aesthetic ties, rather than those which have any function.

But in Tokyo’s underground, it’s still possible to find purists who embrace kinbaku as an artisanal rather than purely decorative erotic act, with intense apprenticeships, immense dedication to the craft, technical precision and respect for its deep history and traditions. Although at first glance it appears like a male-dominated field, today it is women who are the driving force in Japan’s contemporary kinbaku culture.

“I think it is different to the hierarchical relationship in BDSM: during shibari it is equal.”

Shiro

Shiro, one of Naka’s models, is a regular face on the kinbaku circuit, performing in shows and adult video productions. She has a flexible body and exudes an incongruous sense of playfulness during her shows, like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn; even grinning under duress.

Shiro says her fantasies of being tied started when she was a child watching period dramas with her grandparents. “There would be scenes where a criminal was tied up and brought to trial,” she says. “They would be strung upside down, waterboarded and ordered to confess. But I was watching those from the perspective that I wanted to do it! My hometown is Akita (a rural city in northern Honshu) and there aren’t riggers up there like there are in Tokyo. So I would look up information on my phone, read erotic novels and fantasise. When I turned 18, I moved to Tokyo and got tied up.”

Many kinbaku models are also accomplished performers, dancers, manga artists and illustrators. For them, kinbaku is another form of expression. Despite the fact that it is the women being bound, the irony is that they are also liberated and living a life in pursuit of pleasure; something rather at odds with conservative Japanese society. Essentially, the bakushi (rope masters) endure years of training to satiate these invariably attractive, intelligent and creative women – women who have chosen to eschew the norm, in order to embrace the sublime. Their sexuality and sensuality lies in a liminal space between here and the otherworldly. Even the least subtle, most explicitly sexual performances see the women enjoying a transcendental state of ecstasy.

Shiro says she is not in an inward state but is extremely conscious of Naka’s presence during sessions. “I think it is different to the hierarchical relationship in BDSM: during shibari it is equal,” she explains. “There are limits to my movement because I am tied but I like the interaction with Naka.”

This communication between the bakushi and the person being tied is at once intense and spiritual for some and visceral and erotic for others, but ultimately ephemeral in nature. “It is ichi-go ichi-e (an idiom meaning cherishing the present, unrepeatable nature of a moment) you tie them and then the knots disappear when you untie them,” Naka says. “It is only the rope and the memories that remain, nothing else endures. It is kind of incredible that you can bind someone’s heart just with rope. You can do all kinds of things with rope to another person. That is why I got so fascinated with it.”

In Japan, the association of rope with restraint comes from its historic use as a means to immobilise criminals or adversaries. But rope can also have spiritual or ritualistic meaning, such as the prominence of symbolic rope within the Shinto religion. The proximity people have to rope, both as a signifier and in practical usage, provides the context in which kinbaku exists.

We can trace kinbaku as we know it today back to artist Seiu Ito (1882-1961), who depicted bondage scenes in his artwork. In post-war Japan, kinbaku became a form of entertainment with the advent of shows, pornography and magazines. In fact, many famous bakushi were and still are editors, leading to the proliferation of rope-related printed matter. In recent years, a reawakening of interest in kinbaku has seen a rise in females becoming clients, seeking out sessions with bakushi to tie them up.

Many riggers will say that kinbaku is ‘free’ and can take on any form but there is undeniably a substantial level of technical ability required to practice. In response to rising interest, shibari or kinbaku studios have sprouted up around the world. The most legitimate of these are often run by the apprentices and students of famous Japanese bakushi, such as Naka, who has a constant stream of foreign enthusiasts flying to Tokyo to learn from the source.

Alexander Ma is editor of the Kinbaku Society of Berlin Magazine. He first met Naka in Spring 2017 in Berlin, his hometown, before becoming his student. In fact, almost all of the current independent kinbaku magazine makers have studied with Naka, such as the stylish Yugen from Italy. Ma says Naka was the first Japanese master whose work actually touched him. “This intensity…” Ma reflects. “The more I know about his work, I would state the appeal is the same: it is always aesthetically pleasing, always dignifying, never humiliating. He makes the models beautiful in their suffering. I observe a specific meticulousness in his tying. It is never sloppy, always on point.”

Rather than the soporific hammock-like suspensions that are popular with the yoga set, Naka practices semenawa, a more restrictive and demanding type of kinbaku rope play that involves a degree of suffering, discomfort, endurance and, most importantly, surrender by the person being tied. Some positions can simultaneously be shameful. But for those with an inclination or proclivity for this type of play, these are qualities of the rope which lead to euphoria. Unsurprisingly, many of Naka’s aficionados also have a background in other forms of BDSM play.

Ma says Naka’s teaching style is “very traditional Japanese,” more of a watch and learn approach: a tie is presented and then the students are given time to practice. “Naka is very open and curious to learn about us ‘Western’ people and also does his best to adapt to our needs when he teaches in Europe,” Ma adds.

Iroha & Naka

Kinbaku has become quite fashionable overseas, with a sizeable contingency of practitioners even interpreting it much like a wellness practice, removing all traces of sexuality from the ropes. Yet in Japan, kinbaku remains a largely a subterranean affair with connections to the sex industry. Naka himself started when he was working in the porn industry. He recalls seeing kinbaku for the first time when he went on set with a porn actress he was managing. His soon-to-be rope master, Chimuo Nureki was tying a woman.

“I thought ‘What is this guy doing?’” Naka explains of their first meeting. “He came up to me and was like, ‘Do you like this? What do you think?’ And I said, ‘Actually up until now, I really disavowed it!’ He invited to me to his circle, a community gathering of sorts called Kinbiken (the literal translation being Bondage Beauty Research Group). From there I studied and read a lot about the history and culture, constantly buying books from the book district.”

“I really got engulfed in it, and I felt it was something I could persevere in, as everyone reacts really differently,” Naka continues. “Humans don’t really have so much resistance to getting tied up. I think it is the opposite, it’s a feeling that they are being held. All kinds of things emerge when they are being bound.”

Despite his elaborate ties, one of the most salient features of Naka’s interplay is his gaze. He is known for his penetrating stare during sessions, making the woman feel simultaneously vulnerable while in ropes, while immersed in his full attention. “The psychological aspects, rather than the physical aspects, are bigger for women when it comes to sexuality,” Naka reflects. “So, maybe the rope links these elements together quite well and an indescribable world emerges. It is strange that they always cry. I can draw something emotional out. Then they feel a sense of catharsis and go home.”

Follow photographer Ronin and writer Manami on Instagram.

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