Hojojutsu or Nawajutsu,Â is the traditional Japanese martial art of restraining a person using cord or rope. Encompassing many different materials, techniques and methods from many different schools, Hojojutsu is a quintessentially Japanese art that is a unique product of Japanese history and culture.
As a martial arts practice, Hojojutsu is seldom if ever taught on its own but as part of a curriculum under the aegis of the body of study encompassed by a larger school of bugei or budo (traditional martial arts), often as an advanced study in jujutsu. Whatever their source, Hojojutsu techniques & methods are seldom demonstrated outside of Japan and, unlike its cousin, Shibari (Japanese erotic bondage), it is far less well known despite the advent of the World Wide Web. There are many who consider it a moribund art.
The history of Hojojutsu is varied and obscure. Japanese cultural history has complex and pervasive traditions of wrapping and tying in everyday life that go back for at least a millennium touching on things as varied as Shinto votive items, the transportation & packing of foodstuff and Japanese traditional clothing which is tied to the body instead of being held with the buttons, pins and fasteners of western dress.
These factors make any meaningful pinpointing of the historical origins of Hojojutsu problematic. Although Japanâ€™s often violent history has made the mapping of meaningful changes in areas like armor and weapons technology and technique well-studied, the origins of the formal, studied use of rope for restraint as a technique that is Hojojutsu remain obscure.
Nevertheless, the Hojojutsu techniques that have garnered attention in the last decade can be said to have flourished in the time following the Edo period as a tool of law-enforcement under the Tokugawa Shogunate.
With Japan divided into individual territories (Han) with the restrictions on travel already in place under Toyotomi Hideyoshi and strengthened afterwards by the successive Tokugawa governments of the Edo period (1600-1868 approximately) provided a fertile ground for the development of formalized methods of tying prisoners who had to be transported across territories because of measures then in place mandating that a prisoner had to be handed off from one set of officials to another at the border of each territory with each law-enforcement group employing a different schoolâ€™s or regionâ€™s often jealously-guarded methodology.
Also spurring the growth in the importance of Hojojutsu was its use in the arrest of criminals and the codified methods of tying employed by various schools and agencies which sometimes provided numerous different methods of binding prisoners on the basis of considerations as different as social status, profession and sex of the prisonerâ€”with all of this added to the methods devised by those directly in the employ of the court system in Edo itself.
Techniques and methods: Generally speaking, Hojojutsu can be divided into two broad categories. The first is the capture and restraint of a prisoner that was affected with strong, thin cord (usually 3-4 millimeters) called a hayanawa or â€œfast ropeâ€, and sometimes the sageo carried by samurai on the sword-sheaths. In law-enforcement, this cord was carried by constables who secreted the rope in a small bundle that fed cord from one end.
This torinawa (“capture-rope”) was coiled so that the cord would pay out from one end as the bundled cord was passed around the prisonerâ€™s body, neck and arms as he or she was tied. This was usually accomplished by one constable in the course of performing an arrest while the prisoner was actively resisting and had to be accomplished quickly.
Even at this stage, attention was still paid to visual and aesthetic concerns in the tying method as well as to the cultural needs of Japanese society. According to experts, an accused but not convicted prisoner would be tied using methods which allowed the prisoner to be securely restrained but which contained no knots to save the prisoner the shame of being publicly bound. Instead of securing the tie with knots, the constable held on to the free end of the rope and walked behind the prisoner to keep him or her under control as the prisoner was taken for an interrogation that could involve the application of one or more forms of judicial torture to elicit a confession.
The second category was effected with one or more â€œmain ropesâ€ or â€œhonnawaâ€ which like the torinawa could be any one of many different lengths, but was a proper hemp rope, possibly six or more millimeters in diameter and as much as eighty feet longâ€”which was used to provide a more secure, long-term binding than is possible with the torinawa for transportation to a place of incarceration, restraint at legal proceedings, andâ€”in the case of particularly severe crimesâ€”for the public display of the prisoner prior to execution by such methods as beheading, crucifixion (i.e., the prisoner was displayed tied to a cross before spears were driven through the body), or, in arson convictions, death by fire.
Honnawa ties were applied by a group of people, usually not less than four, whose presence allowed the use of more intricate and ornate patterns than was the case with the torinawa. Both forms combined effective restraint with a distinct visual aesthetic.
In either form, the hojojutsu ties known today display a shrewd understanding of human anatomy through several recurrent themes. This can include leverage-removal (tying limbs in positions that decrease the force they can generate), rope-placement to discourage struggling or to make it less effective by placing one or more loops of rope around the neck and constricting restraint around points on the upper arms where determined struggle put pressure on blood vessels and nerves numbing the extremities.
Persistence in modern times: Hojojutsu shows limited survival in the modern world, both in Japan and elsewhere. Torinawa-techniques are taught as part of the curriculum learned by modern Japanese police officers and it remains an advanced topic within schools of jujutsu, following it and other Japanese traditional martial arts as they make their way around the world from Brazil to Eastern Europe.
Although the Honnawa techniques have long been supplanted by handcuffs and leg-irons, some teachers of traditional martial arts in Japan work to continue to maintain the art form. The Soke (head of, and heir to the style) of Masaki-ryu Bujutsu, Nawa Yumio, has written several books on the subject and has worked as an historical consultant on matters dealing with law-enforcement and Mizukoshi Hiroâ€™s recently reprinted book Torinawajutsu offers historical background followed by thorough, practical instruction in more than 25 traditional ties including some recreated from rare and very old texts. Although long out-of-print, the late Fujita Seikoâ€™s monumental work, Zukai Hojojutsu could be considered a bible of the art; showing hundreds of ties from many different schools. Unfortunately for western practitioners, none of these authors has any work in English.You might also like: