Japanese Shibari Terms and How Not to Be a Culture Vampire - an Excerpt

August 25, 2022

Are you curious about Japanese words or terms related to shibari and BDSM? Let’s explore a few of these words and consider good ways to use them. 

Q: First, do you need to know Japanese words to enjoy shibari? 
A: No, not at all.  

Q: Could it be fun for some of you to know some Japanese words to add to your shibari interests? 
A: Sure!

Q: If you don’t know the ties by Japanese names, does it make you less of a rope lover? 
A: Not at all. Use words and names that are easy for you to remember. When it’s easy to remember and easy to say, they can help you to learn the ties or make your play hotter!

Different cultural and linguistic systems have vastly different ways of thinking about, framing, and organizing sexuality and sexual behavior. Concepts in one culture may not have equivalency or a direct translation in another. Something that is expressed in one word in one language might require several sentences, reference images, and even pantomimes in another language.  Something as nebulous and nuanced as sexuality and sexual behavior, built atop and framed by systems of social organization, religion, gender roles, concepts of collective or individual rights and obligations, shame or guilt, class, and other cultural distinctions is profoundly difficult to translate with accuracy and nuance. Even in English, there are some really vague terms when we take a moment to think about it. For example, what exactly is sex? What’s the difference between sensual and sexual? As we discussed in the essay “The Two Ends of the Rope – Who Does What?” many of us have very different ideas of what “top” and “bottom” or “dominant” and “submissive”’ mean. 


Appreciating and accepting this linguistic ambiguity, here are a few Japanese basic kink terms used in kink spaces:


nawa  縄 なわ - rope


rōpu ロープ- also rope. It’s a Japanized pronunciation of the English word rope.


sado サド- Japanized pronunciation of “sado” as in “sadomasochism.” Generally, a broad term that encompasses what English speakers mean ‘top,’ ‘sadist,’ or ‘dominant.’ This is used interchangeably under one word. See “essu”


essu エス S- Japanized pronunciation of the letter “S” for ‘sado.’   See ‘sado.’


mazo マゾ– Japanized pronunciation of “maso” of “masochism.” See ‘emmu’


emmu エム M – Japanized pronunciation of the letter M for “masochist.”  See “mazo”


masutah マスター Japanized word for ‘master,’ though this isn’t what you think it is. It’s not the Master in a D/s scene or relationship. As a noun, masutah refers to the head manager or proprietors of a business establishment, like a bar or club. As a verb, it means to gain competence in a skill. To assume masutah means the same thing in a dungeon in San Francisco could put you in a very awkward and non-consensually embarrassing situation. If you go to a kink bar in Tokyo and the mastah wants to talk to you, you’re not invited into a D/s scene … youprobably just need to settle your bill. 


shibari 縛り しばり - I include this here to clarify the pronunciation. If you use no other Japanese words, which is absolutely fine, please try your best to pronounce this linguistically accurately, in the Japanese way. English speakers usually will pronounce “shi” and “ba” correctly, but will not know how to, or have difficulty with the “ri” sound. “Ri” or “り” is not pronounced as the North American or Californian standard “r” (as in “reach.”  “り” sounds almost like “Li” (as in “leaf”). This may be better represented visually as “Lr”. The Tongue in “り” is lightly pressed on the back of the upper front teeth with the mouth slightly wide, air flowing along the sides of the tongue. The Spanish or Portuguese “re” comes closer to “り”. There are many online videos and language apps that can help you pronounce this correctly. Please try.


esuemuエスエム SM – Japanized word for SM. Generally written as “SM” with roman letters, even inside of standard Japanese text.  Yes, it’s S&M, sadomasochism, kink, BDSM all rolled into one. It’s a broad term to include all sorts of kinky stuff from cosplay, sex role play, and sex with some props, to full-on whips, chains, ropes, scat, and more.  The detailed semantic discourse (yes, those often annoying threads in FetLife) that is common in North America doesn’t much happen in Japan. It’s accepted as broad and vague, and they’re totally fine with that. If you start to get into fine-tuned delineation between dominant / top / sadist / master, etc. with someone in Japan, you’re not going to have much of a good time. Leave that for the Reddit threads. Embrace the fuzzy and the ambiguous and get on with the kinking. 


I’m often asked for the “true Japanese word for BDSM”. Much to their disappointment, it really is “SM”. Why? This, I believe, has everything to do with the vastly different framing of sexuality, attitudes around sex, and conceptualizing of human social behavior in Japan versus the European-based “West”.  Blame it on the Age of Enlightenment. Seriously, yes, I’m talking about that 17th century time in Europe when science, as we’ve come to think of it today, was new-fangled and all the rage. Through a long and twisting path, this would eventually lead to the creation of categories and scientification of sexual behavior and identity. A drive to define and catalog “normal” and “deviant” human behaviors, including sexuality and sexual behavior, leads to pathologizing a lot of creative things people do. Categorized by respected thinkers of the time, all manners of consensual kink activities were deemed as the illness of Sadomasochism. (Gee, thanks a lot Dr. Krafft-Ebing!)  In many ways, the ongoing discussions on terminology in kink sites may be a very looong hangover from the early days of psychiatry.  This, a period like the Enlightenment, didn’t happen in Japan.  Japan and the Japanese language have long excelled in incorporating foreign words and concepts, then Japanizing them to suit their communication needs. Might as well just borrow a European term that works well enough to cover the broad array of kinky stuff folks do.  So, yes, BDSM in Japanese is SM.


Body Part Words and Position Words (These are just a few. Trust me, there are a ton more.) 


Let’s take a look at words like kareada, futomomo, matanawa, and the general category of body parts and tying of body parts.


The nomenclature of shibari in Japan is elegant in its simplicity and practicality. To try to read deeper meaning into it, or to attribute hidden symbolism steps into unwitting Orientalism and pretense of mysticism. (What’s Orientalism? Check out this excellent article: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/what-is-orientalism )


The shibari naming system in Japan is extremely colloquial and developed in the various regional subcultures, leading to quite a lot of variances for what the same tie is called. It’s hyperlocal.  The names can be localized to an area, a social circle, or separated by generation gaps, influenced by how people accessed information and learned their kink and shibari. There is no unified Japanese national standard for shibari and BDSM terms. Unlike the Académie Française, thankfully there is no Académie de Corde Japonaise to enforce a linguistic purity that doesn’t exist.


The names attributed to ties or skills are ones that are simple, or easy to remember, or stylish, or sexually suggestive, or visual puns specific to the culture. Sometimes social groups or a network of people will name a technique, shape, or skill after a person who taught it to them or had innovated it. 


The names or terms are shorthand for efficient communication of desires, and to assist in better anchoring learning and skill retention. The same abound for North American kink terms. 


karada 体 からだ – Body or torso. In the context of bondage, shibari, or kink play,  this is referring to the body part and tying of it. The English equivalent is “body harness”. Among many non-Japanese speakers, disagreements are common on which particular tie is or is not a “proper karada”. This is a pointless debate, unless debate for its own sake is the fetish.  It’s an argument that entirely misses the Japanese pattern of naming things and the colloquial bondage taxonomy in Japan.  

Karada is a direct and unambiguous reference to the body part being tied. As is with the English term chest harness or body harness, it’s a genre term about the part being tied, and less about the configuration of the thing on the part. Western body harnesses come in a myriad of styles, and so do they in Japan. 


Futo momo 太腿 ふともも – Upper thigh or the thick part of the thigh. Momo is the word for thigh. (Not to be confused with momo 桃 which is“peach” or “fruit”. These are homonyms, written with different kanji characters, and have no relation.) Futo is simply the adjective to mean thick, large girth, or fat.  The usage of “futo” to mean the tied thighs is a well-intentioned but erroneous contraction by non-Japanese speakers. 


Takatekote  高手小手 たかてこて – Literal translation is “high-hand-small-hand”. Also sometimes takategote 高手後手 たかてごて – literal translation is high-hand-back-hand. The latter one can have a slight additional suggestion of the losing side. Which is right? They both are! It merely depends on how one learned it. 


The term TK, used by many outside of Japan, is a practical abbreviation for English speakers and non-Japanese speakers. If you say “TK” in Japan to Japanese kinksters, most likely they won’t know what you’re talking about. This term refers to a wide variety of tie positions where the hands are tied behind the back, generally at waist level or higher. 


Consider some examples of body part terms in English kink vocabulary. Mostly they are used with generalized assumptions: 


“Wrist tie”; is there one and only way to restrain the wrists? No. Does the term refer to a specific body part and help the players communicate better to get on with hot play? Yes. 


Speaking of wrist ties, tekubi 手首 てくび is Japanese for the wrist. The literal translation is ‘hand-neck’, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The ‘neck’ in this case refers to the narrow part before a larger part. It follows with beautiful logic that the ankle is ashikubi 足首 あしくび or ‘foot-neck.’  Ashi 足 あしis foot.   Neck is just kubi 首 くび .  Chikubi 乳首 ちくび is ‘breast-neck,’ which is the nipple. 


Other body part names or places you tie on:


mune 胸 むね – chest or front of upper torso of any gender. Mune nawa means chest rope of any form.


pai ぱい – Children’s slang or impolite root word for fem breasts, but not if used alone. Oppai おっぱい is like boobies or titties. Feminine is implied and not often used for male or masculine breasts.


mata 股 また – crotch of any gender. Mata nawa is a crotch rope of any sort.


chin ちん – Children’s slang or impolite root word referring to the penis but not if used alone. Chinpoko ちんぽこ、ochinchin おちんちん,    Chinchin ちんちん are all similar to weiner, weewee, willy, etc. 


International shibari pro tip – If you are in the habit of cheering your beverage in the Italian way, “chin chin”, don’t.  Instead of saying “Cheers” for this drink, you are saying “Dick Dick”. 


penisu ペニス – Japanized “penis”  Personally I like the terms dankon 男根 だんこん literally translating to “man-root”, and nikubou 肉棒 にうぼう which translates to “meat-rod”


mankoまんこ omanko おまんこ – cunt and pussy. The first is considered more vulgar and harsher than the latter


bagina バギナ bvageenah ヴァギナ – Japanized “vagina”


nure 濡れ ぬれ – Wet or moist. Generally referring to wet vulva or vaginal secretion.  


Shibari trivia:  Many professional performers and sex workers take stage names that are naughty puns by using homonym kanji characters to make proper sounding names that, when written out, tell a dirty double entendre. For example, Mr. Nureki Chimuo, bondage porn great of the 1980s and 90s. His performer name is written 濡木 痴夢男. (Here I write this in the Japanese convention of surname first / given name last) Sounds like such a proper and handsome name! The characters of Nureki, however, spell out ‘wet-wood.’  Chi 痴 can be translated as crazy, foolish, or stupid, but in this case, it refers to the first letter in chikan 痴漢 ちかん、meaning pervert or groper. Mu 夢 む is dream or fantasy. O 男 おis man or male. Chimuo in character reads as ‘pervert-dreaming-guy.’  Yes, his nom de kink is 

‘Mr. Pervert Dreaming Wet Wood”.  His name is just one example of the bawdy, punny Japanese stage name of the pleasure quarters.



Terms from Analogous Imagery Specific to Japan:


Many of the tie names in Japan are based on visual associations specific to Japanese culture. A little understanding of some of the reference points for the culture can help us appreciate it without exoticizing it. For example


ebi 海老 えび – shrimp

kani 蟹 かに – crab

kikkou 亀甲 きっこう- tortoise shell


All these examples are common sea creatures with ordinary Japanese words evoking strong visual analogies for these seafood-centered peoples. These words are visually evocative across class and education within this cultural group.  In American English, one equivalent example is “hogtied.” This term, meaning a pig restrained by all four limbs bound at the ankle, is not used in Japan. For people from a meat-eating ranching culture, however, it works as a quick and easy visual analogy. 


Another visual reference that appears commonly in Japan is tsuru 鶴 つる. This is the Red Crowned Crane, native to East Asia, including Japan. In Japan, its image is revered as a symbol of long and faithful marriage. Sadly, the actual bird is very endangered. In terms of bondage, the reference is not about fidelity in monogamy, but about standing on one leg with the other bent and tied up. 


A bird-based bondage word in English is “spread eagle.” This derives from European heraldry, symbolizing power. The stylized image of an eagle with wings outstretched appears on many national and organizational symbols. It’s even on the Seal of the United States. If translated directly and literally into Japanese, it would make very little sense for a Japanese kinkster.  If they used some online translation tool, it might even evoke the image of buttery spreadable condiments made of raptors. Imagine the looks you’d get! 


There’s one Japanese kink term that doesn’t get the attention it deserves: 


sukebe 助平 すけべ –  (Noun) It’s someone who has their pervy curiosities or desires upfront. It’s in the realm of perv, letch, lewd, creep, and the like. Like perv, in a broader societal context, it’s a deeply negative term pointing to someone’s moral failings and inappropriate behavior. And like perv, freak, or kinkster, within the in-group or subculture, it becomes humorous, playful, positive, and even a reclamation of one’s unique sexuality in a larger sex-negative world. 


Shibari terms in Japan, whether they are referring to body parts, cultural imagery, or the name of the person who taught the tie to them, they all have an important purpose in common.  It makes it easier for people to learn, ask, listen, and understand rope bondage skills and desires. 

The words are not meant to be precious or venerated. They are not mantras or paths to some nirvana. They’re not for displays of social status or hierarchy of sexual sophistication. If using Japanese words makes it difficult for others to understand or hard to remember, or makes another feel inferior or culturally disrespected, they’re not functioning as thier originators intended. 

Consider the modern global yoga practices. They seem to be moving towards using words of the land they are on. Down dog, corpse, and triangle poses – instead of Adho Mukha Svanasana, Savasana, and Trikonasana. The Sanskrit words are there to be learned by those who are curious. Not imposing them or thinking of them as the norm in the practice makes the practice more accessible and welcoming while being less appropriative. 


(A personal aside… Now I’m curious about the pose names in other languages. Down Dog in Spanish? Corpse Pose in Japanese? Triangle in Navajo?)

The Japanese words of shibari are simple, elegant, even rough-hewn, and of the people, of the ordinary folk of its land. 


Might it be respectful to the culture of origin, as well as to the function, intentions, and purpose, to consider how we use the words? If we add practical shibari terms, in the language of the land, to the pleasure vocabulary of where we are, could it serve to make it more inclusive, accessible, de-stigmatized, and fun? 

Midori's Bio

Trailblazing educator, sexologist, artist, and irritant to banality, Midori founded Rope Dojo and ForteFemme: Women's Dominance Intensive. She penned the first English instruction book on Shibari titled "Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage" in 2001, paving the way for the popularity of rope. Dan Savage calls her the "Super Nova of Kink," while others affectionately call her Auntie Midori for her cool, tell-it-like-it-is, funny, reality-based teaching. 

She is also the author of "Wild Side Sex," "Master Han's Daughter," and "Silk Threads.”

During this pandemic, learn, laugh, and enjoy her special online classes, events, and art at www.patreon.com/PlanetMidori

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/planetmidori/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MidoriReallyMidori

Creative Living Coaching and Private Sexological Consultations: ask@planetmidori.com




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