Jonathan (SeattleShibari) is an international rope artist who performs onstage, ties for art collaborations, and teaches the art of Shibari/Kinbaku. He has performed and presented for audiences across the world. Traveling yearly to Japan for a continuing immersion in his own studies, he meshes a distinctive and constantly evolving blend of Western & Eastern aesthetics & perspectives in his interpretation of the art. He holds a teaching license from Kinoko Hajime.
Together with his partner Sappho, he will be visiting Greece this summer. He will be collaborating with AthenShibari for teaching a WS on Exposure, Shame, Pleasure and making a semi-private performance that is all about connection.
First of all, how did you start your rope journey?
Beginning in the early 1990s, I became very interested in Japanese history, particularly Japanese martial culture, and as part of that journey, I was extremely fortunate to be permitted to enter several ryū (traditions). These traditions tend to be small, quite insular (even by Japanese standards) and culturally conservative, and still embody older ideas about pedagogy and practice.
I first started visiting Japan in 1991, and it was also around that time that I first started learning to tie people with rope. However, originally it was part of my practice of classical Japanese martial arts. These are generally referred to as koryū (古流 / ‘old traditions) and somewhat arbitrarily refer to martial practices that were systematized prior to the Meiji Restoration and the abolition of the feudal system in the late 1800s. Hojō (arresting cord) is one of them, and I was always extremely interested in the ties from an aesthetic viewpoint, but didn’t really think of myself as kinky.
About ten years ago or so, a lady asked if I would tie her up, and I thought I had better learn something a bit safer and more comfortable than the martial ties I had learned. As it happened, one of my peers in koryū had mentioned that he was doing this sexy thing called ‘Shibari,’ so I thought I’d ask him to show me something. He taught me my first gote! I then did workshops with a Seattle teacher who was quite skillful but more focused on ‘Western/Fusion’ rope bondage. I started traveling to Tokyo regularly in 2015 for study there.
Who has been your primary influence(s) in rope?
My biggest influence is definitely my teacher Kinoko Hajime, who I first met at a workshop in Canada in 2015. We hit it off and he invited me to come visit him in Tokyo and study. I did so a few months later and have been studying the various aspects of his style of tying intensively ever since. I typically see him several times a year. He teaches me strictly and has provided me with many opportunities in the world of rope, for which I’m very grateful.
Another significant influence on my rope is Naka Akira, who has been kind enough to give me detailed instruction in his semenawa style of tying over the years. He has graciously taken the time to teach me, even though I am another teacher’s student, and I’m grateful to him.
What was the stronger attraction in the beginning, the aesthetic, the nature of BDSM or something else?
Although today rope for me is primarily about having an intense psychological intersection with another person, my initial major attraction to shibari/kinbaku was once again its visual aesthetic. It’s also fair to say that my sense of what I find visually compelling about rope has changed quite a bit over time. I’m sure that’s true for many people.
* You have experience with both traditional Japanese and modern Western pedagogy/approaches to teaching & learning. In your view, what are the main benefits in each approach?
I spent several decades actively immersed in Japanese cultural arts practice both in Japan and in the USA, as a student and also as a teacher. In my professional history I have experience and academic training in presenting learning packages & targeted instruction to different audiences: everyone from corporate directors to professionals in different fields. Part of my studies at university was theories of learning. So I’m going to preface this by saying that, while I’m definitely not Japanese, I am a keen observer and participant in certain aspects of Japanese culture, and have been for a while. Too, generalizations that will fit into a short interview are bound to miss some important things, so I’ll just humbly offer a few observations:
Traditional Japanese pedagogy tends to follow a model where the teacher demonstrates something, often with little verbal explanation, and then the student imitates it. There is often little to no explanation of theory early on—although those things can be gleaned by listening to late-night expositions over beers by skillful exponents. I can’t tell you how many really important things I’ve learned by listening over a beer or coffee.
Unlike a modern classroom, where asking the teacher a lot of questions is seen as a sign of student interest and engagement, in traditional Japanese pedagogy questions can be seen as challenging the teacher’s credibility. It’s often not done. With little theory and no questions, students often don’t really know the rationale for why they are doing something a particular way. You tough it out, and a skillful teacher is carefully watching you, even when you think they are not. The teacher makes small corrections when they see you going too far off course, but it’s on you to learn, sink or swim.
When this system ‘works’ the student learns theory through practice. This is a deep learning, a real learning. The strong point of this approach is that once the student grasps the thing —that ‘aha!’ moment—they have real ownership of that knowledge & skill. It’s theirs now, forever. For that reason, it’s important for the teacher to correct the student ‘just enough’ to keep them moving in the right direction, without denying them that important personal moment of realization & insight.
I’ve seen it at work in others, and I’ve been the recipient of it myself. When you think about the enormous amount of effort this sort of approach requires of the teacher, you can start to understand the traditional reverence for one’s teacher in Japan. You can’t repay that sort of thing.
On the other hand, there are also weaknesses to this approach, in my opinion.
Because of this traditional model, students may just blindly go through the motions, with poor technique and no understanding of theory. If you have a teacher who is indifferent to your progress (and this can happen for a variety of reasons), and you aren’t asking questions, you’re just as likely to swim around in circles, perhaps for years. I have seen this many times, in fact: students never really improving, despite the teacher being a skilled exponent of whatever art or skill.
Speaking broadly of ‘Modern Western Pedagogy’ (and someone is doubtless sharpening their knives over my choice of terms), you see an approach where student questions are encouraged and theory is front-loaded to maximize effective practice. This approach has several things to recommend it:
Because students understand why they are doing something, and what precisely the objective is, they can often practice very effectively right from the start, and improve rapidly.
Student questions can help the teacher identify student misunderstandings early on, can reveal the student’s interior process to the teacher, and give the teacher the opportunity to guide learning effectively. For the student, asking a clarifying question or question about theory can—and often does—translate into immediate improved practice.
This approach also has its own drawbacks, in my opinion:
Because students have their questions about what makes something work (a friction in a gote, for example) answered without having to work it out themselves, their understanding may be superficial. Their ‘theory’ that they ‘understand’ is merely someone else’s knowledge they are parroting. They lack ownership. If you can explain a thing but can’t do it, do you really understand it? The traditional saying is: ‘knowledge does not proceed experience.’
Because students are being spoon-fed theory by the teacher, they may not develop the active, intense focus on meaningful and reflective practice They can be lazy, and why not?
I should add that there’s some really great current academic research on learning out there —it’s a field where work is always being done—and some of the stuff you are seeing is a great combination of experience-based learning and theoretical study. Conversely in Japan, I have seen skillful rope teachers who hew to a traditional approach to teaching, and rope teachers who give quite a bit of theory & explanation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the teachers doing this interact with Westerners quite a bit.
As a rope educator, I tend to teach in a more ‘modern’ way when I teach group workshops, and in a more ‘traditional’ way when I teach private lessons. It requires a lot of attention to the student and the ability to ‘read’ what underlying issue the student is struggling with at any particular moment, but I find it rewarding as a process. I hope my students do, too.
* You have been a rope educator for quite some time. What is the best advice you would give to someone who is new with ropes and wants to explore the world of japanese bondage? In both ends of the rope (either a person who ties or a person who gets tied)
For so many reasons, rope is an art that is best learned in person if at all possible. This is even more true when first learning: for safety, to learn good habits and avoid drilling in bad habits etc. We live in an age where people expect more-or-less instant gratification. But if you take the time to research a good teacher or group, and take the time to learn properly, you’ll lay an important foundation for yourself. In recent years, more and more bottom-focused rope learning has become available, and I think that’s a really wonderful thing.
I think it’s also so important for people to pursue learning and skills around consent & communication, and this is an area where reading and watching things online is perhaps more approachable. For example, La Quarta Corda is producing a lot of good material about consent & communication on YouTube.
Having said all that, rope is, in the end, about two people having (relatively) safe, consensual fun together. It’s great that it can be so involved, or technical, but you don’t need fancy ties and you don’t need suspensions to be doing ‘real rope.’ I think you just need some basic knots and a sincere desire to connect with your partner.
What aspects of doing ropes do you enjoy the most? Why do you do what you do?
The thing I enjoy the most about doing rope is the intense, immediate eroticism of it for me—and that eroticism doesn’t have to be explicitly sexual or get physically sexual (and what do we mean by ‘sexual?’). For me, rope demands complete attention to this present moment I am sharing with the person I’m tying with. That’s a really wonderful thing, that intimate immediacy.
I wear a lot of hats: rope artist & performer, rope educator, professional BDSM service provider. So my ‘why’ is different for different aspects of it.
As an artist and performer, I do it because I love connecting with my audience and showing them something that hopefully makes them feel something.
As a rope educator, I enjoy sharing this art and especially helping others learn to connect in hot, fun new ways with their tying partners.
As a BDSM service provider, it’s an honor for me to help my clients explore new sides of themselves. It’s very rewarding to guide clients towards embodying strength that they sometimes didn’t realize they had.
You perform all over the world. What would you like for people to see when their eyes are on you and your partner?
Well, obviously that what we’re doing is hot and sexy and we look good doing it. But seriously: after circus-style shibari performances before non-kink crowds in Europe or the USA, I will invariably get approached by two different people who will say two different things to me almost word for word:
One will be some youngish guy who will say: ‘that was awesome, how on earth do you do all those knots?!?!’
The other will be an older woman who will tell me ‘I don’t know what I just saw, but it was really beautiful. The trust. The surrender. The communication.’
Both are good to hear, but it’s the older woman’s words that make me feel like me and my partner did something that night.
Do you have any thoughts about the future of ropes?
I think rope is several things at once:
a practice rooted in several (arguably) distinct elements of Japanese culture that will continue to evolve-
a sexy, universal human activity that some kinky people have been doing everywhere since probably the ancient Egyptians-
As rope continues to cross-pollinate (and it has always cross-pollinated, Western fantasies about ‘Ancient Japanese Bedroom Arts’ aside) I think both of these aspects of it will continue. I suspect rope bondage as a non-deviant activity between two consenting adults will get more and more mainstream — just look at how much more mainstream rope bondage has become in the last 30 years. Some people will think that’s wonderful, and some people will hate it. I don’t really have time or personal interest in critiquing other people’s approach to rope, or developing elaborate theoretical frameworks around my own. I think that as long as you’re embracing consent & communication, doing your best to keep each other safe, and having a good time, whatever sort of rope you’re doing is ‘correct.’
For more details regarding his activities here in Athens, feel free to visit here