Mention anything bondage-related and Zetsu Nawa reflexively geeks out.
By Lila Seidman
[A] casual reference to a dotted gag in one of his thousands of drawings and photos of bound women launches him into a mini-lecture about its “humiliation factor” in modern Japan. It’s just a dishtowel, he explains. “It’s like he grabbed the thing you’re using to wash your hands to gag you.” As he talks, he’s caressing a length of Japanese jute rope, which he extols for its “toothiness.”
Zetsu — an American who adopted the pseudonym to protect his identity — is the head of a one-room school in Koreatown dedicated exclusively to shibari, or erotic Japanese rope bondage. His rope work has been featured in Katy Perry’s music video “Bon Appetit” and on the cover of Jhené Aiko’s album Maniac.
Launched in its current space in 2014, L.A. Rope Dojo is tucked away on the second floor of an unassuming office building just off Western Avenue and Second Street. The walls are plastered with images of women in various states of constraint. Wooden beams stretch from wall to wall — not coincidentally, the perfect height and size for binding willing men and women to.
On a recent Tuesday night, mostly fresh-faced, young couples stream into the dojo for its sold-out, bimonthly beginner’s rope play class. They look, well, totally normal.
“Most of the people who come here would never set foot in a BDSM dungeon,” Zetsu says, crediting the historical, philosophical and artistic appeal of the practice.
At most dungeons in L.A., people go by BDSM aliases, “like BadMaster79,” Zetsu explains. “Here, people are ‘Beth’ and ‘Kevin.’” In class, Zetsu goes by his real first name. “Nobody’s thinking about hiding in a way that people tend to do in the broader BDSM scene,” he says.
Zetsu, who could pass for anyone’s affable uncle, begins every intro class by detailing the origin of shibari, which synthesizes elements from Kabuki theater and an ancient samurai policing technique.
Before students start immobilizing one another, he asks the “top” (the one doing the tying) to think of a word before grabing their partner’s wrist. The first word is “sensual.” The second is “mine.”
Subtle acts like this reflect the essence of the teaching style he learned from his longtime instructor, Yukimura Ryuu, a grandmaster of the erotic art, who stressed the Japanese concept of kokoro, or “heart,” over technique.
“If your partner is feeling things that they need to feel, then the rest of it doesn’t matter,” Zetsu says. “The rope is just a conduit to get to those feelings.”
As class progresses, a petite girl with her hands bound becomes flushed and sinks to the floor. Her equally flushed male partner asks her if she’d like to be untied. She breathes “no” and they embrace.
(Class assistant Howard, who also goes by Rope Daddy, describes the feeling as “rope drunk” — a sort of euphoric high some people experience via bondage.)
Baltimore-born Zetsu says his path to enjoying bondage was significantly more fraught than many of his students.’ In the late 1970s, at age 12, he would wait 45 minutes to download a single pixelated photo of a bound Japanese woman. He stored the images on cassette tapes; floppy disks didn’t yet exist.
It wasn’t until 2006 that he found himself in Tokyo for work and decided he had to finally explore “this thing.” He took a class with a German expat, Osada Steve, who in turn connected with him a teacher in L.A. At that time, it was still a rarefied practice in the West. Now, “It’s everywhere!” Zetsu says.
In 2010, he returned to Japan to study rope more explicitly. He is now one of only two people in the United States with a teaching certificate from the late Yukimura.
Zetsu says that in Japan, teaching “is an obligation, and a very sacred one.” He had no choice but to spread the knowledge he acquired.
Significant cultural translation is needed to bring the essence of the art form to Angelenos, he admits. For one, Zetsu says in Japan it is normal to “molest” the models during a lesson. Here, that wouldn’t go over so well.
While Zetsu acknowledges ethical questions inherent to sexual power exchange, he believes it’s a basic question of consent.
“It should ultimately be about love and care for your partner, which sounds kind of ironic as you’re tying them up and hitting them,” Zetsu says. “But that’s the whole point: You only do that to people who need it and crave it and love it.”
Ivy, a 20-something Asian woman who came to the class Tuesday with her boyfriend of 3½ years, looks gleeful in the dingy hall outside the dojo. She says she was happy to act on some of her desires for the first time.
“It’s just sort of intimidating, taking that first step,” she explains. She’s already plotting her return.
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