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Hong Kong shibari artist shares the truth behind Japanese bondage

It's the art of restriction

By Time Out Hong Kong
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Photograph: Calvin Sit

The art of bondage has long been seen as a sexual fetish, stigmatised with labels such as perversion and lust. We sat down with Subay, a local bondage artist and founder of Kokoro Studio, to find out the truth behind this mysterious art. By Cara Hung. Translated by Hoi Man Yau. 

The serenity of the room was broken by the sounds of tightening ropes rubbing against the bamboo, along with the occasional soft moans of a woman. The bondage artist meticulously binds the model with visually intricate knots, while constantly uttering reassurances to make her feel safe. While perfecting the art of ties and forms, the subtleties of the act show consensual restraint and trust. It is not a sexual act; just two people completely engaged in the moment, such is the art of Japanese bondage.

Shibari (to tie) is a form of Japanese artistic rope bondage. The concept can be traced back
to Hojōjutsu, a type of martial art from the Edo period in Japan, in which samurais used to capture criminals. Although, that’s not to say that Hojōjutsu and modern Japanese bondage have a direct correlation. Classical Japanese kabuki theatres brought the art of bondage to the stage, stylising torture bondage for the sake of dramatic tension. A common trope featured virtuous females being tortured, showing the aesthetic of tragedy through the kabuki’s bound bodies.

Photograph: Calvin Sit

Tale through bondage

The art of bondage has many different layers, and every artist has their own style. Some people practise bondage for sexual pleasures, as shown in many adult films from Japan; some practise it for photography, pursuing the aesthetics of bondage; and some are more interested in the visually impressive acts of suspending a restrained partner up in the air.

“For me, the art of shibari lies in emotion. The ropes become a medium of communication,” shares Subay. She also believes that bondage should not be restricted to just the bedroom or between couples; it could also be a form of deep and meaningful communication between friends. “I love the Japanese saying ‘ichigo-ichie’ (いちごいちえ). It describes what I believe to be the essence of bondage, regardless of the style: that the beauty of bondage flourishes in one single, unrepeatable moment”.

"For me, the art of shibari lies in emotion. The ropes become a medium of communication"

Subay started practising bondage at the age of 18, when she secretly approached bondage artist Haruki Yukimura during a family trip to Japan and took lessons from him, unbeknownst to her family. Inspired by the experience, Subay delved deeper into the art of shibari as a student of Japanese bondage artist Naka Akira. In 2015, she eventually started her own bondage workshop in Hong Kong called Kokoro Studio.

“It is challenging to find a suitable venue for this art in Hong Kong. You want to protect the privacy of all participants, but most venues for rent have CCTV installed,’ says Subay. She opened her studio aiming to create a safe and private space with her friends to connect with the local bondage community. Subay also noticed that there were a lot of people falsely claiming to be bondage artists on the internet, and hopes to protect her friends from these charlatans through educating them.

Photograph: Calvin Sit

Solace amidst peril

“Bondage is not a 100 percent safe practice, one missed step and it can lead to injuries such as nerve compression, which is invisible to the naked eye,” explains Subay. She stresses that knowing which part of the body is prone to injury and communicating this effectively with your partner should come before anything else. There are a lot of risks involved, but the danger builds a strong sense of trust and security between the rope top and the rope bottom. When one is restrained by ropes, the binder and the bound have to trust each other while exposing their vulnerable sides. “It’s like finding your soulmate, who will give you a sense of security. You’ll discover a feeling of rapture during the process, and deprivation yet fulfillment when it ends.”

The binder and the bound

Though Subay is a full-fledged bondage artist who has taught and performed her art across the globe, she remains Naka’s student. “It’s not just about the techniques of the art, but also, the attitude and way of life.” Subay demonstrates the style of her two masters in her art, putting emphasis on sensuality and visual impacts.

“I don’t bind my partners for sexual purposes, regardless of their sex. I use ropes to understand my partner’s emotions and find out what they desire.” Even when practising erotic bondage, Subay aims to manifest love and intimacy through her partner’s imagination rather than physical contact.

Bondage model ‘K’ agrees that the essence of bondage lies in the interaction of the partners. Elegant and soft-spoken, ‘K’ is not someone you would associate with shibari. “When you are bound, not only are your limbs entangled, your vision is also restricted. There’s a sense of anxiousness, which comes with the thrill of anticipation,” she enthuses. A common, yet misguided, view about the bondage artist and the model is that they have a dominant-submissive relationship. However, Subay insists that they are on equal ground. “If my partner derives pleasure from pain or turmoil, I will try to deliver.”

Photograph: Calvin Sit

Let subcultures remain subcultures

Subay thinks that the majority of the Hong Kong society holds a conservative stance regarding this topic. “They can’t accept the concept of bondage as they do not understand what eroticism and BDSM is. They equate it with violence and inelegance.” However, Subay does not expect bondage to become a mainstream art, though she hopes Kokoro Studio can keep running for the small bondage community. “When Hongkongers can openly discuss topics like LGBTQ+, eroticism, and when sexual education goes beyond using a condom and birth, I will think about promoting the shibari culture.”

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