Is “Shibari” racist? What about kinbaku? What aspects of our rope practice, is in fact, racist?
Shibari. Kinbaku. Alien words to most people. These are Japanese words from the Japanese culture of rope bondage. Shibari means knots in direct translation. Kinbaku means tight binding. I see so many people using these terms, even as their profile names, and it bothers me.
It’s totally up to people to do as they choose. This post is just my opinion. My issue is when people not of Japanese heritage or lived experience use these terms in their fetishisation of Japanese rope bondage. As became common, when colonialists found new forms of entertainment, they appropriated them. The colonised, took the money, sold the product, knowing the consumers were the privileged ones with power. It wasn’t an equal transaction. Since independence, nations asserted themselves, but we still see the marketing of cultural practices. Food. Clothing. Music. We need to respect the roots of what we do. We need to confront the colonial entitlement to other cultures that still prevails today.
I get it, though. Japanese bondage is beautiful. If you ever have the pleasure of watching the masters with their bottoms, you are very lucky. We want a piece of the action, so jump on the Shibari bus. Bored with your life and seeking excitement, you consume. People sell, and sometimes, they are not even masters. When you are exploiting a minority group for kicks, it’s disrespectful and racist, in my opinion. That’s consuming a culture that isn’t yours.
You might think there’s no harm in it. It’s fun. But at what cost? Copying a cultural practice without a full appreciation of what it means is not okay. If for popularity, to get likes on social media and people thinking that you are the next best thing, you buy bamboo poles, tatami mats, room screens and kimonos, you are being at best culturally insensitive, at worst racist. Unless these were already part of your everyday life, I’d recommend questioning your motivations.
Also, interlaced in Shibari culture is a misogynistic patriarchy (just like in most parts of the world). Are you happy with that? Have you had conversations with people in the Shibari community regarding how in modern-day Japan we can address this issue and flavours of xenophobia that still exist? Have you ever even been to Japan?
The problem is that Shibari and Kinbaku culture creates a hierarchical structure that might not suit all people. Where is there accountability and oversight if you are not under the guidance of a master? If you are using shibari to describe your practice, this can be an insult to those who study it as a martial art or part of their lifestyle.
We should be able to enjoy rope and not be racist. I use Japanese named ties, but in the Western context I live in. It’s important to credit ties to the correct culture, but that doesn’t mean that I am adopting a culture I know very, very little about. I would be racist to do so.
This had been a sticking point in the rope community for some time. Why are we associating rope bondage so closely with one culture when it has existed in many parts of the world? Should we allow social media trends and hashtags guide our rope journeys? Do we really want our prestige to be determined by a culture we are not a part of? Does prestige even matter? How can we be less racist when it comes to rope?
We also need to value the black community in particular and the association of slavery, lynchings, and how this can be triggering for some folks. Generational slavery trauma is still being processed by some black people. Black people in places like the USA are still suffering political, economic and social injustices many years after the civil rights movement began. Rope is an item that can cause serious harm to black people. Thrusting rope on a person in an insensitive way, exploiting a culture they may not be family with, is potentially cruel, complex and needs more nuanced discussion.
When George Floyyd was murdered by a police officer in 2020, people put black squares on their social media. They said we need to stop racism. People became active. Event hosts and organisations reached out to people like me, a person of colour (POC), a person of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, that’s active in the kink POC/BAME community. POC/BAME leaders took on the labour to educate predominantly white people on anti racism. I wrote in this blog some posts to refer people to, so I didn’t have to repeat myself. I wanted to help. I was hopeful. People are aware now. Which is good. There’s no excuse for ignorance.
But all this time later, what has really changed? Do events reflect a change? Are organisers behaving differently? Do they have anti-racist policies, or at least racial inclusion policies? If they do, have any of us seen it in action?
I haven’t seen it. Anywhere, except POC/BAME spaces. People are back to type, doing what they’ve always done. That, right there, is white privilege. It’s not fashionable to talk about it now, so they don’t. They’ll hire POC/BAME models (hopefully paid fairly) to represent colour in rope. Is representation enough?
No. It isn’t. You’re not not racist for having a person of colour on your social media. You’re not not racist for having a person of colour on your committees/boards/groups.You’re not not racist by using cultural and religious imagery in your art. In fact, all those things are racist. Just like culturally appropriating Japanese culture to look more legitimate and make money.
I appreciate some (white) people might not see it. You won’t see how it hurts to be racially exploited so that white people can tender their guilt complex wounds. You won’t comprehend the work it takes just to show up. And if white people are listening, to actually hear the voice and appreciate the work involved in speaking up. You might not see how taking a person from one cultural background and insisting that they adopt an unfamiliar culture to enjoy rope and be popular is problematic. You might not see the perpetual and systematic assault on POC/BAME people.
Will things get better? I hope that by re-igniting the conversation, perhaps we can remind ourselves of the good intentions of 2020 and/or take this opportunity to review and reflect on our current rope practice and events planning.
(This writing is not a discussion on race play)
Cover image: self tie high heel shoe bondage by Dea Nexa. Noticing the contrast of black patent shoes and soft natural jute.