Hojojutsu (補助術 ほじょうじゅつ) is the beautiful and peculiar art of restraining someone using (often brightly coloured) cord. It is rarely practised outside of Japan and is an ancient strand of martial art with a rich and complex history.
Hojojutsu is seldom taught as an isolated art form, it usually constitutes a single aspect in the study of a much wider curriculum such as advanced jujutsu (柔術 じゅじゅつ).
The art of binding objects is traditionally Japanese, whether it be tying on kimonos or finishing wrapped gifts with decorative cord and elaborate knotwork or the more simple method of transporting objects, luggage and foodstuffs in fabric secured with cord or rope, we know that the habit of tying up objects runs deeply through Japanese history.
Although the precise origins of this art form are unclear, the reason behind the process is pretty evident. Hostages and prisoners were secured in this manner during transportation. The advanced nature of this practise differed greatly with what was occurring throughout the rest of the world where there were much simpler devices used for restraining prisoners.
The complexity of Hojojutsu was not purely in the advanced skill involved in executing the art form but it was also used as a means of communicating crucial information about the prisoners and their situations as different coloured cord and different knot styles were used to display vital information.
The practise of using different coloured ropes to indicate severity of crime is thought to have been adapted in the Edo period where white rope indicated a minor crime and blue rope was used for serious offences. Black rope meant the criminal was of a low social standing and violet rope indicated a person of high rank.
The ropes were made of strong hemp, but during practise silk alternatives were used which were bound around straw dummies or stacks of heavy paper.
Generally speaking two types of rope were used. Initially the fast rope or habanera was used to seize the criminal. This was a short thin rope (approximately 3-4mm) but was exceptionally strong. Occasionally the samurai would use the sageo that bound their sword sheaths for this purpose too. Once the habanera rope was in place then the torinawa was unleashed. The torinawa (which translates as capture rope) was a lengthy piece of coiled rope that ensured the captive had significantly limited movement.
A kaginawa (hooked rope) was often used to ensnare the captive before the rope binding process took place. The whole operation had to be very speedy and the dexterity needed was staggering. The kaginawa was not intended to cause pain or injury, speed and beauty were integral to its skill. Its application should not have exceeded 10 seconds.
Technique and skill
Hojojutsu transcends beyond being simply an effective method of restraining someone, being bound was meant to be highly humiliating and it was considered a very disrespectful act. Some say that even death was preferable than being a victim of Hojojutsu.
If multiple prisoners were to restrained at once then they often were tied to one another. A variety of styles of knot were employed, some simply holding the prisoner in place while others progressively got tighter the more the prisoner struggled.
There were four simple rules when it came to Hojojutsu -
- To securely restrain the prisoner.
- Not to cause any injury (physically or mentally).
- To maintain secrecy of the techniques used.
- For the end result to be aesthetically pleasing.
The main purpose of maintaining secrecy was so that captives did not learn ways to escape the bonds. This rule was kept so diligently that often if a prisoner was being escorted across the country the most restraining knots would be loosened as they approached the destination to prevent that domain’s officers from learning techniques used in a different domain.
The most competent Hojojutsu artists have a great understanding of human anatomy and are able to execute knots in places that will suppress nerve sensation, numbing the extremities and causing temporary paralysis in this manner.
Although the demise of the Samurai has led to Hojojutsu becoming a dying art, there are still a few martial art experts who are adept in the skill. Japanese police still to this day carry lengths of rope with them as well as handcuffs. They are only allowed to employ this device if they are sufficiently skilled in the art of Hojojutsu.
There are a few select clubs throughout Japan that offer Hojojutsu instruction, it is still considered a very specialist art and training is intense and specific. It is an exceptionally beautiful art to observe and the speed in which the capture is completed is breathtaking. Demonstrations of Hojojutsu are more common now that the law of secrecy has relaxed and are certainly worth attending as it really is an experience you need to witness first hand to understand the true wonder of this ancient art form.