Traditional Hojojutsu Hojo-jutsuRestraint of a military prisoner. Click picture to get in touch


martial skill of restraining a

prisoner with rope. It was

practiced by the warrior class

and in particular the samurai, who

acted as police officers.

The word hojo is made up of the

character 'ho', which is also pro-

nounced 'tori' and means to catch,

seize or arrest someone, the character

'jo', which is also pronounced 'nawa'

and means rope, and of course the

word 'jutsu', meaning art or skill.

The actual characters can then be

read in English as either 'torinawa

jutsu' or 'hojo jutsu'. However, both

meanings remain the same.

The main reason for tying someone

up is because a need has arisen to

keep them alive and take them

captive, or prevent their escape. This

was often the case during Japan's

feudal period, particularly when the

captured enemy was thought to be

able to be persuaded to part with vital

information, or be used in an ex-

change deal for someone of import-

ance who had been captured by the

other side. There were various other

reasons why rope tying was employed

in Japan. One further purpose was to

secure prisoners who were to be

brought before a magistrate and tried

for crimes they had committed.

Securing prisoners

In practically every country

throughout the world the feudal era

was littered with various means of

securing prisoners. The techniques

ranged from rope, to shackles or ball

and chain. It would seem, however,

that no other nation developed such

a sophisticated system of rope tying

as the Japanese. Hojojutsu was incor-

porated into the samurai's knowledge

of fighting skills and used during the

sanguineous era of the 'Sengoku

Jidai' in particular.

The lower class police officers,

called 'okapiki', were taught very

basic forms of Hojojutsu under the

guidance of senior police officials

from samurai stock. However, with

the Meiji restoration (1887), the art of

Hojojutsu began to fall into decline.

When prisoners were held captive,

they were tied in a specific manner,

according to their rank and social

status. Each method of tying denoted

what class of society the prisoner

came from, each was tied in a recog-

nizable way. If a person had been

found guilty of a particular offence

he was tied in a manner denoting the

offence he had committed. There

were special techniques for people

with strong arms or people capable of

slipping out of the knots, even mad

and extremely violent people were

tied using special knots. Because the

style of tying varied with both the

crime and status of a prisoner, the

length of rope used varied consider-

ably. Some ropes were only a foot in

length, while others reached well over

30 feet. Most of the Hojojutsu ropes

were made of tightly twined linen that

had been beaten until soft. Silk rope

was not very popular because it was

easy to slip the bonds. However,

hemp rope did play a part in various

styles of Hojojutsu.

During the Edo period the use of

coloured rope to denote particular

crimes and status became popular.

White rope denoted someone who

had only committed a minor crime,

while a blue rope was used to secure

offenders who had committed serious

crimes. If a person was of high rank

then a violet rope was sometimes

used, but if they were of low rank

then a black rope was used.


The knots used for making the rope

secure were many and varied. Some

were employed to tighten as the

prisoner struggled, while others

simply held fast. When a number of

prisoners were being conveyed some-

where together a long length of rope

with hand loops secured each

prisoner to the other. When the

prisoner was conveyed alone the

length of rope usually measured seven

metres. Even the retaining cord on

the sword scabbard was used to

secure the unexpected prisoner.

There were many classical ryu

(martial art schools) who employed

the technique of rope tying in their

repertoire. These included Fujiwara

ryu, Chokuji Goden ryu, Sekieuchi

Shin Shin ryu and many others.

Apart from the actual tying skills, the

ryu employed various techniques of

throwing and restraining that comple-

mented the art of Hojojutsu.


There were many subtle append-

ages to the rope used in capturing an

escaping prisoner. One included a

barbed hook. This special hook was

thrown as the criminal ran away.

However, as soon as it ensnared the

clothing the criminal was brought to

the ground and secured before he

could free himself. The prisoner

would then be subjected to an

intricate web of rope which would

make him completely immobile.

In modern Japan there are very few

masters of the martial arts who are

skilled in the traditional art of

Hojojutsu. I was fortunate enough to

witness this skill at the hand of Takaji

Shimizu dai sensei, the late grand

master of Shindo Muso Ryu. It was

amazing to see how quickly someone

could be restrained and with ii hat

ease the techniques could be effected.

The art of Hojojutsu has not yet

died out in Japan. The modern police

force still carry special rope with

which to secure their prisoners (of

course handcuffs are also carried).

The rope is also used by the police in

Japan to cordon off areas and keep

the public back during times of

disaster, so its use is not restricted

simply to the tying of prisoners.


Hojojutsu is an obscure but inter-

esting part of the cultural history of

martial arts. It reflects the ingenuity

of the samurai class and the manner

in which the essence of this martial

skill has been passed down, even to

today's modern Japanese police


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.

The Cross

hojojutsu - the cross rope tie

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.

The Girdle or Diamond [from its shape]

hojojutsu - diamond rope tie

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.]

The Well-curb

hojojutsu - the well-curb rope tie

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.

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Some additional information from various correspondents: get in touch and let's get practical - click here for mail screen

HOJOJUTSU: This page covers some information about the traditional Japanese art of rope restraint. Link to a page of a friend of mine in Japan who has translated some details from original sources

ROPE NOTES - Nawa Shibari or Hojojutsu, Link to a Japanese Rope Bondage resource by Jim Stewart

Art or Style: Hojo Jutsu - The Japanese art of Roping and Binding

encyclopedia article about Hojojutsu

Hojojutsu - The art of tying - written by Paul Richardson

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