Dexx interviews Master “K”

Kinbaku as modern art. Photography by Michel Helms. Kinbaku by Master "K."

Kinbaku as modern art. Photography by Michel Helms. Kinbaku by Master “K.”

Master “K” is a North American educator, author and authority on the art and history of shibari/kinbaku (Japanese erotic bondage). He began his studies in Japan in the early 1970s and has spent over forty years researching and translating original materials concerning this centuries old art form and is both a student of Yukimura Haruki (under the name Haru Tora) and the direct and named successor to Urato Hiroshi’s school of kinbaku in Japan. He is the author of two books on this subject, the most recent being 2008’s The Beauty of Kinbaku (Revised & Updated Edition, 2015).

For more information or to get a copy of Master “K’s” book, go here.

Dexx: First, I’m curious about when you began studying Shibari in Japan back in the 1970’s. How did you first become interested in it originally and how did you begin your studies?

Master K: I think people who, at an early age, suddenly realize they have an interest in any kind of “fringe” or “counter culture” activity have two reactions/questions. The first is, “Am I doing something wrong? Is there something odd or strange about me or my interest?” The second reaction/question is, “How can I learn more about this to see if it’s right for me?”

Of course, when I say this I’m referring to people of my generation. When I was young, social taboos where more strict, there wasn’t the Internet or even the ability to talk to other people about one’s interests. It was a completely different world. I’m sure that some of the feelings I had when I started on my Kinbaku road wouldn’t be as common today but some of my reactions might still resonate with some of your readers.

Anyway, at the time when I first got interested in Japanese erotic bondage (Kinbaku or Shibari) I was quite a young person. This was in my teenage years and one day I walked into a bookstore in Toronto, Canada. It was sort of a counter culture bookstore and carried all sorts of wonderful things from all over the world. In this shop I saw a book of Kinbaku photographs in their “erotica” section. The pictures were beautiful and, more importantly, it was clear that the models that were tied were enjoying the experience. I suddenly realized that this interest of mine could be an art form and one that could also be done as an expression of love and affection between like-minded people.

And that’s how my interest began.

However, because this was pre Internet, trying to learn about actually doing Kinbaku was almost an impossible task. First of all, unless you happened to be able to go to Japan, there was no one you could learn the art from in North America nor were there any sort of easily obtainable instructional books or videos or that sort of thing. So learning more about Kinbaku was very difficult for me in the beginning.

I proceeded to pick up information in fits and starts until I got lucky in my junior year at college and was able to go to Japan as part of what was then called a “junior year abroad program.”

And that brought me into contact with the first really professional rope people that I got to know. One of them was a fellow student whose girlfriend at the time was one of the models for the many, many Kinbaku “rope” magazines that were then being published. I first began to learn how to tie from him. He was the first person who showed me what real Kinbaku was. Through him I learned it wasn’t about misogyny or pornography, it was about communication through rope and trying to create pleasure in a safe, sane, sensual way for another person. One wouldn’t even really call it BDSM in some ways. Kinbaku was and is its own unique thing. Of course, it can be used as part of a BDSM activity or “scene” but it is its own art form. Anyway, that’s how I started out.

So I gather that you’ve spent a fair bit of time in Japan since that first trip and you’re a student of Yukimara Haruki, the famous shibari master. How did you come to meet him and become a student of his?

Well, I’m actually an official student of two famous rope sensei (teachers). The first is a man named Urato Hiroshi. During the 1970’s through the 1980’s he was the premier movie rigger for the well known BDSM oriented films that a main stream Japanese movie studio called Nikkatsu was making. His work (“Flower and Snake,” “Wife to be Sacrificed,” etc.) has been seen by millions of people. Urato sensei is well into his eighties now and has just published his memoirs with a very prestigious publishing
house in Japan.

Poster for "Flower and Snake" - c. 1970 Nikkatsu Films. Kinbaku by Urato Hiroshi.

Poster for “Flower and Snake” – c. 1970 Nikkatsu Films. Kinbaku by Urato Hiroshi.

My other sensei is the wonderful man you mentioned, Yukimura Haruki. He is generally considered the last of the three great rope masters of the 20th century. This group consisted of himself, Nureki Chimuo and Akechi Denki. I first encountered Yukimura sensei when I was preparing the first edition, the coffee table edition, of my book “The Beauty of Kinbaku” back in 2005. I was introduced to him by my very good friend Osada Steve. At the time it was very difficult to be taught by Yukimura sensei because he was still very active and wasn’t doing a lot of teaching.

You know, for many subjects, teaching as we think of it in the West is a bit alien to the Japanese. They don’t teach “classes” in the same way as we do here. They take on apprentice/students and over time the student watches the master and then he or she copies the demonstrated technique or “steals.” Yukimura sensei had started to “teach” Osada Steve and Steve was gracious enough to invite me to one of his classes, which was quite a mind blowing experience. And then Yukimura sensei was kind enough to accept me as a student. Then I was able to introduce a couple of other people to him.

Yukimura Haruki and model. Photo from the collection of Master "K."

Yukimura Haruki and model. Photo from the collection of Master “K.”

Right, and so you mentioned that they don’t really do classes in the western sense in Japan so was the experience quite different from how we might expect it to be here in America; in terms of learning to tie?

Yes it would be. One of the differences between Japan and America is in the way in which some things, especially certain arts and crafts, are taught. By this I mean not just Kinbaku or karate but everything, from becoming a sushi chef to learning how to make a kimono to practicing martial arts. As I mentioned, many such arts are “taught” through an apprenticeship system where you’re basically watching the master work, learning the right way to do things and stealing as you go along and then adapting things for your own purposes and perhaps adding a little of yourself.

And if the teacher accepts you as a true student and gives you his name, which is a great honor in Japan, then you are following along in the true “way” of this master’s teachings. So the relationship is very much more of a one on one type of thing and you’re never going to be in a class with maybe more than one other student.

As far as Kinbaku is concerned, you are really learning by watching and then repeating what you learn; and that’s important because Kinbaku can be very dangerous.

Most people think they can pick up a piece of rope and in a couple of easy lessons learn how to tie and then maybe in a couple of more lessons learn how to suspend and at the end of six months they’re the big rope guy. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that people who try to do this inevitably run into trouble because they don’t learn ties within the context of safety and body positioning and all of the little details that go into really mastering the subject. Kinbaku really is like Japanese martial arts. There’s what you can see of a tie, which is obvious, and then what you can’t see which can kill you. It’s that lethal karate blow that you deliver so fast it can’t be seen that’s the problem. The same thing is true with rope. You have to learn a lot of simple things before you can learn how to do more ambitious things. And in the west people are used to taking a class with lots of other students, paying their money, learning a little bit and then doing “it.” That’s not the way they do things in Japan.

Shibari has quite a long history in Japan which you touch on in your book. How far back are the earliest origins of Shibari? By the way, I’m using Shibari kind of interchangeably with Kinbaku. I’m not sure if that’s correct?

Yes, you’re being correct. Shibari is actually the older word. Kinbaku was coined in the early 1950s when the explosion in rope and BDSM magazines began in Japan. The publishers of these magazines were looking for a word that would describe erotic rope, that is, rope done with an erotic intention. Shibari is the much older word and means simply “to tie.” And you can tie in all sorts of ways, from being a farmer using rope on livestock to being a policeman making an arrest or tying as a lover. All of it was Shibari.

But as far history is concerned, what we think of as the origin of Shibari is the Japanese martial art of hojojutsu. The earliest records of this art come from around the 1300-1500’s and the feudal era of Japan when the samurai were fighting wars. It was a way of capturing and restraining prisoners or taking prisoners for ransom. That’s the earliest recorded history of the beginnings of Shibari and Kinbaku. Of course, hojojutsu was probably practiced much earlier. We just don’t have as much information written down from an earlier time.

And so rope is clearly growing in popularity now in America, though presumably not nearly as advanced here in the culture as well as the skill level, generally speaking. But when did you first bring your rope skills back and start using them in America?

Well I started teaching about 30 years ago in a very modest way. People started to see what I would do or on occasion a photograph of mine would be published and people would ask to learn more about it. I would then teach maybe one or two students a few rudimentary things. Then with the dawn of the Internet that all accelerated tremendously.

Hojojutsu patterns from the feudal era in Japan, circa 1500 - 1800. Photo from the collection of Master "K."

Hojojutsu patterns from the feudal era in Japan, circa 1500 – 1800. Photo from the collection of Master “K.”

And did you find that there was a much greater element of taboo to what you were doing then compared with now?

Oh yes! It’s very funny. When I was in Japan in 2010 I had the great privilege of watching Nureki Chimuo do a magazine shoot for Sanwa publications. He’s one of the three great 20th century rope masters I mentioned earlier. Anyway, he liked the first edition of my book and sent me a very nice letter and invited me to Japan to meet him. At the shoot we got into a conversation and he was saying that nowadays, even in Japan, in a culture where everything is permissible, it wasn’t nearly as much fun to do his art as when he used to do Kinbaku in a more outlaw way. He and his colleagues would sort of sneak into locations and had to be very, very careful not to arouse the authorities. There was much more of a sense of Shibari/Kinbaku as something very risqué, even in Japan, back then.

You know, America is much more conservative than Japan in some ways but even in Japan back in the 1950-1960’s there was more of a sense of erotic rope being on the fringe. Now it has become much more open, much more common everywhere. I just did two photo shoots with the wonderful fashion photographer Michel Comte which appeared in GQ Italy and in Interview magazine (Germany). And this was real Kinbaku with full nudity. It’s definitely become much more main stream worldwide.

Back in the 70’s how did you find partners to tie in America and did you have any awkward or unusual conversations when you were explaining what you wanted to do?

Of course. That was always the case and I’m sure it’s still the case today. It wasn’t something you’d engage in indiscriminately; where you have your first date and you’d get around to the end of the evening and you’d say, “Hey, I’d really like to tie you up.” This was something you’d only do once you knew someone for awhile and then suggest it in a very general, casual way to see what the response would be. If the response was negative, you’d immediately drop the subject. And if the response was positive or interested, then you’d pursue it. That said, we’re talking about the 1960’s which was a very liberated time. As I think of it, it really wasn’t hard to get partners as long as you did it in an intelligent or gentlemanly way. The problem was finding a good partner. That is, a partner you could care about, work well with and have a connection with. And that remains the essential problem even today.

So what does make for a great rope bottom?

I think one of the most important things is you have to have good mutual communication. A lot of times a rope bottom can be a bit selfish. By this I mean they’re only interested in their own gratification and that’s always difficult for a rope top. If all you want to do is practice your tying that type of partner is fine but it’s very hard to have truly good communication with that sort of bottom. And by communication I don’t just mean that they’re letting you know what they like and don’t like and are staying alert as to what you’re doing and how they’re feeling before they go into subspace, but also that they have an interest in you as a person and an interest in having this rope relationship be something unique and an activity that you both enjoy.

One of the biggest problems when you do rope seriously is when you end up feeling like, as my friend Osada Steve would say, “A pair of hands.” In other words, the rope bottom would be happy if anyone was tying them. They may appreciate your skill, you may be a little bit better or a little bit worse than the next rope top and, of course, they like the fact that you can so something and they’re not hurt. However, you’re really not that important. You’re just the guy or woman with the rope, you see? And that becomes a problem for a serious rope top unless all the top is looking for is something very superficial. On the other hand, if communicating with another person is important to you, be it your skill or sense of romance, adventure, or your sense of tenderness, or whatever it is you want to communicate, that really requires the right partner and it takes time to find the right partner. And if you’re lucky enough to find that illusive, “right” partner, that’s when Kinbaku can become a truly profound and spiritual experience.

I’ve heard Shibari described by some people as an art form, by others a martial art, and still by others as being a sexual act. Which of those three would you consider to be the most accurate?

Depending upon the context, they’re all accurate. As I mentioned, Shibari started out as the martial art of hojojutsu. It became Shibari when hojojutsu was modified to become safe and so became an erotic art. As such, the rope was used to stimulate the erogenous zones of the bound partner in a way that allowed a release of adrenaline, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins which would let the rope partner go into subspace. Obviously, when that becomes a very intimate experience between two people it becomes a sexual act.

However, what is interesting about Kinbaku is that, depending upon your relationship with your partner; you can either participate fully or only participate partially in the sexual side of Kinbaku. In other words, as a rope top you can give your partner a sexual high without really participating physical yourself. You can do it in a platonic way. Because you’re not doing anything more than applying rope, it is the rope that is having the sexual experience with the rope bottom [laughs]. But if you have a partner that you love or you’re intimate with, then it can become a very powerful sexual experience for the two of you.

And, finally, because Shibari/Kinbaku patterns can be so beautiful to look at, it’s obviously also an art form.

So Kinbaku is actually all of the three things you asked about (martial art, sexual act and art form) depending on the context. So anyone who uses one of those definitions is always partially right.

I believe you tend to favor jute rope over other materials? Is there any particular reason for that?

Personally I’m not a rope snob. There are a lot of people who are. The rope that’s the professional standard for Kinbaku/Shibari is cord that combines jute and hemp. The reason is that this type of rope is incredibly strong, will not stretch and it will adhere to itself a little and thus makes creating the intricate patterns of Shibari easier to do. But you can actually do Kinbaku with any kind of rope. The trick is to know how to do Shibari/Kinbaku safely regardless of what rope you’re using. Knowing where certain pressure points are, where certain nerves are that are dangerous to tie too tightly, what are the best positions for your partner’s body for their maximum pleasure and safety and always knowing what it is you’re attempting to do with your partner (suspensions, floor work, erotic ties, etc., etc.), all of these things can be adversely effected by having the wrong rope but are really all about the rope top’s skill regardless of what type of rope they’re using.

You’ve obviously been teaching classes for some time. You’ve set up the Rope Dojo in LA a little more recently. I guess that’s kind of your dedicated space to do your art? What lead you to that and how’s that experience been, having your own private establishment for that?

Well, the LA Rope Dojo is really something that my student Zetsu wanted to do and did the most work for. I was basically assisting him in setting up and financing the Dojo and helping to create a space where people who are interested in this activity could come together and have social events and rope classes and that kind of thing. This was really his brainchild and I was happy to help him start it off.

As far as what I prefer to do personally, I write on Kinbaku, teach privately and I do commercial jobs involving rope such as the shoot I just finished today with celebrity photographer Michael Helms or the movie I just rigged for called The Neon Demon. That’s going to come out in 2016 and stars Elle Fanning and Keanu Reaves.

I see, so in terms of the private teaching that you do, is that open to anyone who wanted to become a student of yours or are you more selective about who you want to take on as a student?

Obviously, when one takes on a private student there’s a little bit of making sure that whomever you’re dealing with is serious and genuinely interested but, no, my private classes are open to anyone.

I find that teaching one on one is the best way for people to learn. The problem with taking a group rope class and attempting to learn anything but the simplest ties is that with a group of students the instructor, assuming he or she is competent and concerned about safety, can only go as fast as the slowest student in the room.

Also, it’s very hard with a large group to know that people are understanding the key safety issues or the more complex tying techniques you’re teaching. So, one of the reasons I like to teach one on one is that I can look my student in the eye and know that they understand why doing this is safe and why doing that is dangerous or this is pleasurable and that is less pleasurable or why this is beautiful, if they’re looking to do a pretty tie. Having that one on one, personal touch allows me to tailor each class to each student. And if you’re doing something sophisticated, like a suspension, that’s very important. That’s especially true here in the U.S. because doing a suspension on a western body type is much different from doing one on a Japanese body type.

Why is that? Because of anatomy?

Yes, because the Japanese are, generally, much smaller people. The average Japanese rope bottom is 5’4” and under and 120 pounds and under and usually 28 years old and under. In the west you’re usually dealing with an older rope bottom and the older people are the more “dings” they carry with them. By “dings” I mean the more accidents and injuries and illnesses they’ve had. They’re also usually heavier and bigger boned just because of their western body types.

For instance, it’s very different suspending a Japanese sized person and your average American. You have to apply different techniques. And if my school of Kinbaku has anything different to offer it’s how you take classical Kinbaku techniques and apply them to the western body type.

Some of your students have now become quite skilled themselves at Kinbaku and have gone on and are teaching students of their own. Is it quite gratifying to you to have been instrumental in bringing Kinbaku to America and seeing that now spreading in popularity?

Yes and no. Yes because I’m astonished Kinbaku has become so popular so quickly and very gratified that my style of Kinbaku that’s based on communication and safety and creating pleasure seems to be being taught more and more. Of course, not everybody wants that. Some people are interested in other things but I’m happy to see that style of Kinbaku taught. On the other hand, I do feel responsible for my students who now teach and I always hope they’re instructing others in a thoughtful, skilled and sophisticated way.

I’ll tell a story on myself here. As I mentioned, I just did this movie shoot and I was very grateful to have had as my sensei Urato Hiroshi because I used one of his techniques in a suspension scene in the movie where the model was lifted three stories up in the air! It was his technique that allowed me to do this dangerous tie. I was very grateful for what he taught me so I wanted him to know about it.

Anyway, a few years ago, at the age of 80, Urato sensei got his first telephone. So I call from LA and get him on the phone and I start to explain how grateful I am to him and all about the movie suspension. After a few seconds of listening to me he cuts me off and says, “Okay, that’s great. Now tell me what you did to make sure she was safe.” So, like Urato sensei, whenever I see any of my students teaching and I see the pictures from their classes or I get reports back from their classes, I’m always hoping they’re doing a good job. It’s not easy to teach Kinbaku properly. It’s actually a very difficult thing to teach.

You’ve written a couple of books; The Beauty of Kinbaku has been quite successful.

Yes, its success has been a remarkable thing and actually the latest edition of the book just came out a few months ago. For anyone that’s interested, the new release is the revised trade paperback edition which is now available worldwide on Amazon.

It’s a funny thing. The first edition came out as a coffee table book in 2008 and I thought maybe we’d sell 200 copies but to my amazement that hard cover edition sold out and then the book was published in Japan in 2013 under the title A Cultural History of Japanese Kinbaku: The Beauty of Kinbaku and now that’s gone through three printings. And now there’s the English language paperback edition, so I do indeed feel very blessed and grateful.

The first book I did on erotic rope was called The Art of Shibari. It was a very small book with pictures and a short essay which came out back in 2004 when this stuff was just starting to become known in the west. It was done for a European publisher and, again, I couldn’t see who would buy it. To my astonishment, that book sold out in 6 months and now used copies go for $1500. You just never know. In short, it’s an understatement to say that I feel blessed that people have liked the books I’ve written.

That’s fantastic! Kinbaku in terms of being a style of rope bondage, which I suppose is linked to BDSM at least in some way. Do you consider Shibari to be part of the realm of BDSM?

Good question. I think Shibari is a very wide river and has a lot of tributaries. I think it can be and certainly often is a part of the world of BDSM. On the other hand, it can also be its own thing. It doesn’t have to be part of BDSM or any other BDSM activities, such as flogging or any of those other things. And Kinbaku can also be a part of pornography and also a part of a private, loving relationship and also a part of modern advertising and main stream entertainment. As I say, it’s a wide river.

Kinbaku in Interview Magazine (Germany) 2015. Copyright Interview Magazine - 2015. Photography by Michel Comte. Kinbaku by Master "K."

Kinbaku in Interview Magazine (Germany) 2015. Copyright Interview Magazine – 2015.
Photography by Michel Comte. Kinbaku by Master “K.”

There’s a bit of a renaissance going on at the moment with BDSM in general, everything is starting to come out of the shadows and becoming more popular and more accepted. Do you think that’s a good thing?

Sure, I think that any time sexuality can be explored and discussed openly and treated respectfully it’s a positive thing. With Kinbaku at the moment we’re sort of talking about the Fifty Shades of Grey effect. I think that’s very positive. It’s quite similar to the gay movement back in the 70’s and 80’s which has now evolved into a much more accepted part of the cultural landscape. Certainly there are conservative, intolerant pockets in the US. But being gay is much more tolerated, respected, accepted and understood today than it was thirty years ago and that’s only a blessing. And the same thing should be true of BDSM as well. Kinsey says that about 15% of the population has aspects of masochism or sadism as part of their personalities. Of course, it’s all how you use or express it. In other words, it’s how one expresses these personal BDSM oriented impulses and interests in one’s interactions with society that counts. And one nice thing about Kinbaku is that it’s a very good way to scratch that itch in a very positive, loving and giving way if you do it safely and well. It can be very, very meaningful. Of course, that can be true of other BDSM activities.

Any time you’re talking about anything in terms of sexuality, you must never forget that there are good applications, positive applications, and there are negative ones. If it’s a question of misogyny or exploitation or deliberately doing harm, well, those expressions of BDSM are reprehensible. But, if you do things in the right way they can be quite wonderful and give people a great sense of pleasure and belonging.

When I started out many years ago there was no one that I could talk to about this. It seemed impossible that I would ever meet another human being who was as interested in rope or Kinbaku as I was. That was true of the Japanese as well. One of the great Japanese rope masters (Akechi Denki) once wrote that when he finally found, after much searching, a girl who would allow him to tie her, he broke down and cried he was so overwhelmed.

But that’s the difference between then and now. Now you have dozens of BDSM clubs, rope events, etc. to attend. The only negative thing is that when people get into it they sometimes get into it thoughtlessly and, if they’re a rope bottom, they don’t think enough about watching over their own safety and doing a good bit of checking before they go off and do a rope session with someone they don’t know that well. In such an instance the unwary rope bottom will, on occasion, wind up being tied by someone who thinks they know a lot but actually they don’t. And with Kinbaku it should never be forgotten that the more complicated the tie the more danger there is for the sub and the more skill the rope top must have to do the tie safely. As a rope sub, the guy (or woman) you DON’T want to work with is the one who has only done rope for a year and wants to do something to you just because they saw it in a movie!

So, if somebody was interested in Shibari and has never done any and is interested in getting into it-what advice would you have for them? Maybe they’re in a scene like LA with clubs they can go to or maybe they’re not, they’re in a smaller town and don’t have as many options, what would you suggest that they do?

The first thing I would say is go slowly and try to define what you’re interested in. In other words, if you’re interested in looking at bondage pictures on Fetlife, find the ones that are most attractive to you and try to discover why you find those particular pictures attractive and interesting. Then, if you want to learn how to do such ties, try to find a qualified person to learn from; but be cautious and discriminating about who you learn from. Ask around to see who the good teachers are.

By the way, there are some very good “how to” Kinbaku books and videos but they’re in Japanese. So, if you don’t speak Japanese, you have to be able to follow the pictures and to do this well you have to have some rudimentary understanding of Kinbaku to begin with. If that’s case then look at my book or Midori’s book and perhaps find a few other things in English on the net and see if they appeal to and have value for you. However, use your common sense as you explore and don’t take all information you find on the net at face value. There’s a lot of mis-information about Shibari/Kinbaku out there.

This becomes even more of an issue when a beginner tries to learn more complicated ties. Then being taught from books or videos can be rather difficult. If all you want to do is learn how to do a few fairly simple ties then buy Midori’s book or one of the other instructional books you find on Amazon and follow the steps slowly and carefully. But if you’re really ambitious and want to learn authentic Kinbaku, then you have to find someone who actually knows how to do it and, just as importantly, knows how to teach it. Take the time to do that and you won’t regret it.

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