Reprinted with explicit permission of the author, Richard Cleaver


by Richard Cleaver

(c) 1998

This page covers, in a rather haphazard fashion, some of the information I've been able to find about the traditional Japanese art of rope restraint. My research is still in the preliminary stages: anybody with further information, (digitized) photographs or leads is urged to email me. I will be revising this page periodically as I find out more.


hayanawa:   "fast rope;" a shorter rope used for the initial restraint

hiro:    a unit of traditional measure for lengths. Roughly equivalent to the old English fathom, that is, the distance between a man's two outstretched hands (roughly 1.8 m). Units of traditional measure were not standardized in old Japan, but varied from province to province; the lengths given in the text belows seem to be based on a somewhat shorter hiro

hojojutsu:   the art of using a rope to capture, restrain and transport suspects and criminals in Japan during the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods; practiced by torimono (q.v.)

hon-nawa –{“ê: "main rope;" the long rope used for restraining and transporting a suspect securely

jakuguchi:   a small loop worked into one end of a torinawa

kaginawa:   "hooked rope;" a rope with a metal hook or barb fastened to one end, used to capture a fleeing suspect

torimono:    specially-trained constables attached to various shogunal or domain offices and holding various ranks, usually just below samurai status

torinawa:   any rope used in hojojutsu (q.v.)

Traditions and techniques of hojojutsu

The following information is summarized from Nawa (1964).

We don't ordinarily think of the Edo period (1600 - 1868) in Japan as one in which human rights were accorded much respect. Nevertheless, during this period binding a person was regarded as a grave matter, not to be undertaken lightly. People felt that the shame of having a rope around their necks and knots on their person was disgraceful in the extreme. Some considered it worse than death itself. If the proper forms of restraining suspects were not followed, the person who applied the restraints could be impeached.

If, however, the restraints contained no knots, they were not considered "bondage" and thus were not disgraceful. In these cases, euphemisms like "wrapping" were used.

Samurai regarded this work as beneath them and never applied restraints themselves, leaving it to their servants or to constables whose job it was. Even within the police, higher ranks, which were filled by men of full samurai class, left this task to the lower ranks, which were not.

"The hon-nawa came in lengths of 13, 11, 9, 7, and 5 fathoms. The hayanawa was 2 and a half fathoms. The length of the kaginawa was not fixed (Nawa 1964: 101)." The length of one kaginawa in Nawa's collection is given as 13 shaku; a shaku is almost exactly one English foot.

The ropes came in four colors, the significance of which changed over time. According to the earliest tradition, which lasted into the Edo period, the four colors were associated with a well-established set of correspondences between seasons, directions, and the four Chinese guardian creatures of the four directions. [Trans. note: These were also used in the layout of houses, gardens, and cities in China, Japan and Korea.] The color of the rope changed with the season, and the prisoner was restrained facing the direction appropriate to the color and season.

The correspondences are as follows:

1. Blue: spring-east (left)-blue dragon
2. Red: summer-south (front)-red phoenix
3. White: autumn-west (right)-white tiger
4. Black: winter-north (back)-black tortoise

During the dog days of late July and early August, a yellow rope was used.

By the end of the Edo period, the colors had been reduced to two, white and indigo, and their use corresponded not to seasons or directions but to the branch of the constabulary using the ropes.

Hemp was used for the real ropes, but silk was used for practice, which was done with dummies made of straw or heavy Japanese paper.

The kaginawa was used to apprehend suspects by hooking the barb in the person's sash, collar, or if need be in the topknot, and then wrapping it around and around the body.

The hayanawa was also used to prevent escape. Unlike the kaginawa, it had a small loop at one end, or sometimes a small metal ring. The plain end could be passed through this loop. For proper use it required the constable to be behind the suspect, or on horseback.

There were four rules of hojojutsu:

1. Not to allow the prisoner to slip his bonds.
2. Not to cause any physical or mental injury.
3. Not to allow others to see the techniques.
4. To make the result beautiful to look at.

The aim of Rule 3 was not so much secrecy for its own sake as it was preventing criminals from learning the techniques and figuring out ways to defeat them. However, the schools and techniques varied from one feudal domain to another. When a person was being transported cross-country, the binding would be allowed to come loose a bit just before turning him over to the next domain's officers, so the latter would not be able to learn the techniques either. Each set of officers numbered at least four, and the new team would stand around the prisoner while one of their number bound him, not only to prevent escape but to foil prying eyes.

In addition to the three ropes named above, there was a short rope about 14 inches long (one shaku, two sun). This was used in the following way: the suspect was made to sit in seiza (the formal sitting position, kneeling and with the weight on the heels) while both arms were pulled behind. Then the two thumbs and two big toes were tied together in a bundle. Alternatively, the two thumbs alone could be tied to the topknot or to a hole made in the collar.

The following information is summarized from Nawa 1985.

There were over 150 different ryu, or schools, of hojojutsu, each with its own techniques for using the hon-nawa and other torinawa. (The illustration at the top shows the variety used by one ryu alone.) The earliest dates from the middle 1500s, and the latest from the late nineteenth century.

Use of the hayanawa

The ideal for the hayanawa was to apply it within 10 seconds, skillfully, beautifully, and without risk of injury to the suspect. This rope was used only for apprehending suspects; because the person was not a convicted criminal prior to trial, no knots were used to avoid causing disgrace. [Trans. note: Of course this also meant it took less time to apply.] In place of knots, the end of the rope was only looped under itself or cast on a couple of times, and the constable kept the free end in hand.

Three "wrappings" with the hayanawa

These are not "bindings" because no knots are used. The "loop" mentioned is the jakuguchi (see glossary). These instructions are translated from Nawa (1985: 197-199) from which the sketches are also taken.

--sketch of The Cross--

The Cross

With the loop end of the rope at L of the back of the neck, bring the plain end through the loop and down, then around the R upper arm, under the arm and across the back to L arm; do the same there. Then bring the rope across the top of the horizontal to hold it in place, and through the part coming down from the neck (again on top of the horizontal). Pull down. Then wrap the wrists (R over L) from top to bottom, from L to R and R again, wrapping them 2 or 3 times. Then bring the free end under these wrappings, L to R. Hold the end, don't tie it off.

--sketch of The Diamond--

The Girdle or Diamond [from its shape]

Double the rope and note the halfway point--place this at the Adam's apple. Wrap the free ends around the back, crossing L over R, and wrap over the upper arms, R and L. Bring free ends around front and then pull through under the arms. Bring the two ends together at the lower back and pull taut. Wrap the wrists, R over L, as in the previous, keeping both ends together. Pass the ends under the L side and pull through to R to tighten. [Trans. note: The number of triangles may be multiplied for visual effect.]

 --sketch of the Well-curb--

The Well-curb

Pass the rope around the neck with the loop to the R and pull taut. Bring the rope down diagonally to L under the arm and wrap it over the L upper arm. Pass the free end under the diagonal and pull it down to the R, diagonally, under R arm, over R upper arm and under the second diagonal. Bring free end to small of back and wrap the wrists as in previous, 2 or 3 times. Pass the free end through from L to R.

For all three of these, the back is the side for display. The front shows very little rope: only a single loop each at the neck and around each upper arm.

Some of you may also be interested in another obscure corner of Japanese history I've done a little research into: official methods of torture under the Tokugawa Shogunate. But before you click on the link just given, which will take you to the article, be forewarned: I wrote it for a column I contribute monthly to a gay men's SM website. So don't be surprised at what you find. If you're shocked by such things, stay away!


(English translation of citation follows original Japanese)

Nawa Yumio (1964) "Studies in Jitte and Torinawa" Tokyo: Yuzankaku Shuppan
Nawa Yumio (1985) "An Illustrated Encyclopedia for Historical Studies: Constables' Tools" Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu Orai-sha

Translations and summaries are by Richard Cleaver and copyright1998 by the translator.

"Reprinted with permission of the author in English only"