Interview: Hebari from Sydney Rope Dojo

Rope, Red Kimono

Oliver Heath investigates Japanese rope bondage:

BDSM has had an impact on the aesthetic of rebellion since Vivienne Westwood pioneered the look of punk. When I noticed a resurgence of bondage collars, this time not on goths, but on the brightly coloured Sea Punks, I realised I was still pretty ignorant on where it all comes from. The aesthetic has certainly had its impact, but just how underground is the rest of it still?

To get some insight I had a chat with Hebari, a Shibari teacher at Sydney Rope Dojo.

What is Shibari?
In Japanese it simply means “to tie” so it can be used in a lot of contexts. In the west it tends to be associated with Japanese rope bondage, also called kinbaku.

Where did Shibari start, were its origins sexual?
The Japanese have used rope for restraint longer than records have been kept, probably the main precursor to Shibari was a martial art called hojo jitsu, which was the samurai art of capturing and displaying prisoners in rope. Much like our fascination with medieval history, the Japanese have their martial history embedded deeply in their culture, so aspects of it come up in their sexual imagery along with a range of other places like anime. Where we have images of dungeons, chains and manacles, they have rope and Edo period police methods.

Is it always sexual? What if someone digs it in a photo but can’t imagine doing it themselves? Sometimes people just like watching a Mondo movie for its strange, no?
For me the rope I enjoy always has a sexual energy to it, though that can be quite abstract. So, no I wouldn’t say it has to be about sex, probably intimacy is a better word. I think spectators watch for a lot of reasons and not all of them they will admit to.

rope redYou run the Sydney Rope Dojo. Is calling it a Dojo something that is practiced in Japan? Is there a Tokyo Rope Dojo?
Not really, in Japan it’s quite underground. They have what they call salons, where a master and his students tie and people come to watch or be tied, the other option are Nawashi (rope masters) that generally teach one-on-one. We went down the path of calling our space a dojo to emphasise the Japanese learning style we follow.

How would you characterise your classes and the range of people that are students?
We have a couple of class styles, the dojo classes which are reasonably formal and focus on a structured skill set. The other classes we run regularly are called “sensual rope”, they are much less structured and allow students to take a relaxed approach to learning with a partner. The students come from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures and sexualities. We have a lot of people that don’t necessarily consider themselves as kinky.

Would your life have been different if something like this existed 20 years ago?
It kind of did. I think the big change has been that more people are accepting different sexual practices and lifestyles, which is great. I know that when I got into the kink scene over 20 years ago, kink was very much for the weird people, now far more people are enjoying kink and exploring their sexual worlds.

In many ways bondage seems mainstream to me; Ellen Von Unworth’s decades of fashion photography, Madonna’s stage shows, and even getting cuffed and forgotten on a bed is a primetime sitcom storyline these days. Given how ubiquitous bondage is in pop culture is, do feel like there is still prejudice to your lifestyle?
Yes and no, I think it’s much more accepted than it was and to some degree kink thrives on the use of imagery that goes against our views of a good society, so it can’t be too accepted and still be kink. In some senses it’s the idea of letting the devil on your shoulder have its way once in a while that makes it all fun. Much like any art, I think it’s the tension that makes it an emotional experience.

Tell us about your alias, Hebari. Is it common to use an alias in the rope community in Australia? How about in Japan?
Nicknames are funny things. Hebari came from the need to have a username on a kink social media site called fetlife, but it also serves to keep my kink and work lives a bit separate. Japan is the same, people that have public lives use effectively stage names. People are funny, kink is pretty accepted in most counties at a very low level I think, but it’s something that societies don’t want to be seen as accepting so it’s kept as a bit of a dirty secret. Hebari actually means skylark in Japanese, I think the imagery is nice and light.

rope b&wAre there immediate cultural differences that jump out between tying rope in Australia and Japan?
The big one I think is that Japan still has the concept of women holding up their social obligation by saying no when they mean yes, where we have really changed our way of looking at sex, especially for women. In Australia when a women wants to say yes she is expected to say yes, and no means no. So Japan has a lot of concepts of shame and I think acceptable naughtiness. To some degree I think kink in general is becoming more popular in the west because people want to play with different sensations and gender roles but it has to work with our moral constructs. The kink community has really put a lot of work into structures that allow that play while ensuring consent and emotional wellbeing.

Any advice for someone who is curious about trying some of this at home, but too shy to come to a class? A potential interest in rope bondage and a willingness to explore this in public are different impulses.
The first thing I’d say is have a chat to your partner and see if they are interested. If they are, great. I have a bunch of tutorial videos up on my website, just have a look at a few and try it out. Just keep it light and fun. Also don’t be afraid to come to a class, it will give you a great chance to chat to different types of people and get a good feel for rope in general.

Much of the imagery in bondage porn that pops up on the internet is very violent and degrading to women, often involving simulated rape. The Max Hardcore case in The States is one that wound up in a prison sentence. Is this a case of consent for humiliation, or is bondage being mischaracterised in this kind of porn?
I think the porn industry is playing to a bigger, harder, faster, more view that’s driven by outdoing the competition. Max hard-core was a classic case of taking advantage I think and playing to a very misogynistic audience. In the end though I think anyone that thinks porn is a representation of how people deal with each other in a sexual context is a long way off the mark.

Good kink is much more about people enjoying a role, normally a master/slave or top/bottom role which to a large degree mirrors the very traditional masculine and feminine roles. With kink those roles are often rearranged with say a female mistress and a male submissive, or a gay or lesbian couple. Rope though isn’t necessarily about roles at the extremes, inevitably there is someone tying and someone being tied (though there are exceptions to that too), the experience can be very dom/sub or it can be a more sensual connective experience, it’s very much about the people involved.

ropeYou strike me as a caring and inclusive person, do you encounter people that enjoy the forced pain and suffering of others in the broader fetish community? I understand that maybe this is a difficult question because some sexual acts might involve pain but also consent, I’m just wondering if you’ve had to confront stuff you find immoral.
Quite simply, non-consensual activities are not acceptable, and the kink community makes that very clear. There are people that class themselves as sadists, though the true meaning of that word isn’t an acceptable kink role. People invariably come through that don’t want to do things in a consensual framework, as much as possible we try to explain to them how to do kink properly and bring them into a space where they understand the impact of what they do. The opposite is also true at times, people that are new to kink and identify as submissive can get themselves into trouble simply by saying yes to everything because they see that as being submissive. It’s a bit like someone taking a snowboard to the top of a black run without lessons, they are going to hurt themselves or someone else. So one of the big things we try to do with the dojo is, teach people how to be good kinksters. I tend to look at kink as the extreme sports of sex, it can be great fun but to play at more advanced levels it’s really important to know what you are doing.

Have you ever intervened and stopped something you weren’t directly involved in during a class or public demonstration?
A few times, though it’s pretty rare. It’s human nature to want to do exciting things, unfortunately people often overextend themselves. With kink, people often see something either in a show, at a club or on the internet and they want to try it without knowing the dangers or understanding the complexity of the topic. Luckily there are lots of different classes out there to help people get the skills they need to be safe.

Is there something inherently misogynistic about binding and displaying the female body?
I don’t think so. Really that is an outsiders view. Like any other kind of intimacy the people involved are really the only ones that know what the feel or intent of the situation is. Also very often the top is not a male and the bottom is not a female. We have some amazing female riggers, also we have gay and trans people involved so I think simplistic gender politics goes out the window at that point. To some degree our society has gotten to a point where we want to be able to judge a situation based on a simple image or external view and relationships aren’t that simple. I really think we need to pull back from that, let people express themselves in their relationships as they choose to.

When was the last time you were tied up?
Lol. About a week ago, to be honest I’m not a very good bottom. Much too demanding and squirmy.

rope b and w

Do you ever want to just light some candles and make sweet love or does rope always have to be involved? It seems a little reductive to fixate on one aspect of sex.
Not at all, in fact I probably don’t do enough rope in my private life. When my partner and I do it’s lovely. I do sometimes need to remember I’m not just a teacher and do nice rope just for us. On the other hand we quite often just want to have good sex and hugs, bugger the rope. I see it as a nice spice to be used when it feels right.

We’ve heard of extreme cases of autoerotic asphyxiation deaths, are there similar perils in couple’s play? is peril and taboo part of the attraction?
Not really, the incidents I’ve heard about are really people just being stupid for kicks, I don’t even really see it as kink, it’s just danger for danger’s sake. Much like idiots driving dangerously, they are just idiots.

Would you still like it if it became more widely acceptable?
Yeah I think so, it’s not really the unacceptability that attracts me, it’s the connection with my partner, and with performance it’s the performance skill.

Thanks for your time, how do readers come try your class?
My pleasure, just have a look here and feel free to get in contact with us via the site, we are more than happy to answer any questions people have.

oliver heath


Interview by Oliver Heath.