Shibari 101: The Art of Japanese Rope Bondage

Photo of a woman with shoulder tattooes and her arms tied behind her back with Japanese rope bondage technique

What is Shibari?

In a kink and BDSM context, shibari is a fairly general term for rope play, but particularly rope play that uses natural fibres and incorporates traditional Japanese tying and knotwork for the purpose of aesthetics. In Japanese, shibari simply translates as ‘to tie, tying’ - there’s no specific erotic or kinky overtone in the literal translation. It’s a versatile, artistic, and evolving technique that remains an ever-popular activity within the kink scene.

Shibari is very much about the application of the rope, rather than the end function of what the rope produces. Certainly, shibari is used to enact bondage, but the bondage itself is not the focus of the play - shibari is about the journey the rope takes while in the process of binding, and the interplay between Top and bottom as the bondage takes place. 

Shibari and Kinbaku

There may be people that tell you ‘shibari’ is not the correct term for rope bondage, and what you really mean in ‘kinbaku’. As much as they’re kinda right, more often than not, these people are kink elitists. In Japanese kinbaku translates as ‘tight binding’, and was the general term used to describe rope bondage up until the 1990’s when rope exploded into western kink scene as ‘shibari’. 

Yet there are some differences between shibari and kinbaku: shibari is often seen as an aesthetic art, while kinbaku is definitively bondage-related. Shibari is sometimes seen as the ‘softer’ option to the martial-art inspired kinbaku. There are a myriad of tiny differences, and schools of thought. Just know that until you’re comfortable knowing the distinctions, shibari is a totally acceptable term when referencing rope play. I mean, when the actual Japanese kinbaku masters are cool with the term shibari, I think it’s okay if we are.    

The origins of Shibari

Many common BDSM practices have their roots in torture techniques, and shibari is no exception. Many of the methods used in modern day shibari are taken directly from the Japanese martial art, Hojojutsu - a combative form of bondage developed in the Middle Ages to capture, transport, display and interrogate subjects. In the early 1900’s, these techniques were refined for consensual erotic use, and the term kinbaku (‘tight binding’) was introduced to describe these refinements, and the concept of using them for sexual and/or artistic gratification. 

Kinbaku made its way to the West post-WW2 when soldiers returned home with Japanese porn mags. Around the same time, live kinbaku performances also began gaining popularity in Japan, and the technique began being taught more widely within the Japanese kink scene. It wasn’t until the 1980’s and 90’s that shibari began gaining prominence on the global kink scene, as accessibility to learning increased, and non-Japanese enthusiasts began studying with the Japanese shibari masters, and bringing their skills back home. Today, shibari is so popular there’s something like a kazillion YouTube tutorials!

The visual aspect of Shibari is appealing

The visual appeal of shibari is something that sets it apart - there are very few forms of play that draw such regular crowds at kink events and festivals. Rope enthusiasts generally consider themselves to be undertaking an Art that can be used for kink, and their creations are often captivating. Rope has a fluidity that sets it apart from other bondage tools; it ‘grows’ around the bottom in a very organic way, and much of the time works to keep the Top and bottom physically connected by the rope itself - the rope is almost like a third ‘performer’ in the scene, constantly dancing between Top and bottom, bonding them with intricate patterns. It can be hard to take your eyes away…

Shibari is accessible to everyone 

Aside from the sheer beauty, shibari is popular because it is accessible. You can learn on yourself, and set the pace. There’s no need for expensive, specialty gear. And although much of the play that incorporates shibari is bondage-related, it doesn’t have to be. Shibari is often used to signify or ‘kink up’ an outfit (eg. rope harness over streetwear) and can even be worn as fetish wear. 

Shibari is very versatile

This is yet another reason for shibari’s popularity - the way it fuses with pre-existing kinks and can take them to a whole new level. Prior to the rise of shibari, western bondage was very ‘Bettie Page’ inspired - lots of stocking gags and predicament bondage. As the name suggests, predicament bondage is a form of restraint where any position is uncomfortable. There is literally no relief, except for changing up the location or intensity of the discomfort - yep, it is QUITE the predicament. These days a lot of predicament scenes will feature a few choice knots in some safe, but uncomfortable places, and even use traditional shibari patterns and knots to create the restraints. 

The popularity of Shibari in Australia

As mentioned earlier, shibari scenes draw a big audience, whether it’s public play at a kink club, or professional performers at an event. It’s engaging, active, and sensual kink that keeps audiences captivated. The popularity is also reflected in kink education with rope workshops being some of the most sought-after and well-attended of those on offer. It’s possible the popularity is in part due to the many Australians who have travelled to Japan in order to study under a nawashi or kinbakushi (rope artist or rope master). Many of our pre-eminent shibari instructors and performers have spent years in Japan training in this very structured and intricate art – for them this is a lifestyle and passion. 

The unfortunate thing about popularity is that there are those who would want to exploit it. If you’re considering learning some shibari - and why wouldn’t you? - be sure to go through a reputable dojo or practitioner, and find someone who is right for you, and respects your idea of consent. Just because you are in someone’s workshop does not mean you are there for them to tie. 

Considering shibari has permeated mainstream pop-culture, it’s pretty safe to say it’s not going anywhere. I mean, if the very flavourless (not even Vanilla) Jonas Brothers can play sexy rope action in a film clip then, quite frankly, it is anyone’s game. And this is not a terrible thing. Shibari is visually beautiful, engaging, often playful, and definitely requires a wonderful bond with someone significant - and what’s not to want about that?

Aleni is a founding member of Studio Kink, a Sydney-based educational cooperative which provides a safe and creative learning space for the kink community. Their workshops cover an ever-increasing range of kink-related topics, including shibari and rope play, for many levels of skill and experience. Click through to their website to check out their upcoming workshops or follow them on social media.

5 comments

  • Photos in private gallery

    bestperson

    More than a month ago

    some people get all tied up

    Reply
  • DrEmberandSir

    DrEmberandSir

    More than a month ago

    I love rope play the subtly of movement between the bottom and the rope
    The way each tie is different depending on mood and mind space
    I’ve been involved in the lifestyle for awhile now and find the art form very cathartic
    I can spend hours lost in rope

    Reply
  • Wouldbanng

    Wouldbanng

    More than a month ago

    Nice

    Reply
  • sensualjute

    sensualjute

    More than a month ago

    love playing with ropes, the experience is always so different, and there's so much room for creativity, play or even very deep profound experiences.

    Reply
  • SensualTai

    SensualTai

    More than a month ago

    Great, well written article MisKnickers on a subject close to my heart...the aesthtics and sensuality and tease available from placement of the ropes, and the pleasure it brings has to be experienced at least once in your life, regardless of your level of kink/desires.
    I was fortunate enough to take Shibari/Kinbaku classes in Japan and fell in love with it instantly...
    Thanks muchly for clarifying and introducing many to the joys of this misunderstood erotic artform! :-)

    Reply
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