Bound Japanese Women: Violence or Sexual Liberation?

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

Last night while I was browsing the Sociological Images website, I saw this:

Sociological Images explains that the ad is for Swiss company Max Shoes, to advertises its sturdy laces.  The ad made me immediately think of these cell phone charms that my bf’s friend brought back from Japan:

Called Oshibari Girls (does anyone know what “oshibari” means?), the cell phone charms come in six different styles, including school girl, office lady and police officer.

The sight of a bound East Asian woman hanging from a cell phone upset me deeply, but I didn’t know how to articulate that to my bf’s friend in a way he would understand, especially not over Saturday drinks on a summer night.

But the commenters on Sociological Images’ shoe post had an interesting take on the tied-up Japanese woman thing:

Some people enjoy bondage, and she has a stereotypical but realistic come-hither look on her face. The Kimono is a bit much, but I don’t find this violent at all.

it IS sexualized, but the reason the woman is represented as Japanese is because I think it’s supposed to be Kinbaku, a type of bondage done with light ropes. Of course, that still doesn’t explain why the woman is in a kimono.

Even the copy on InventorSpot where I found the Oshibari Girls online (evidently neither an anti-racist nor feminist site) had this to say:

At least [the Oshibari Girls’] little round faces aren’t twisted in terror – on the contrary, with eyes closed and lips pursed they almost seem to be thinking “So you’ve got me where you want me… whatever will you do??”

I came away from my internet research puzzled.  It is true that both the Oshibari Girls and the Max Shoes model look to be enjoying themselves.  Truth be told I was so disturbed by the Oshibari Girl my friend brought back that I didn’t notice the look on her face.  In both cases, I simply saw a woman tied up to sexually titillate men- it didn’t occur to me consent could be involved.  So maybe I was being thoughtless and sexually backward by totally overlooking the possibility of happy, healthy sex play between consenting adults.

What was the intention behind the creation of these images, and what are we meant to see in them? Within our own North American culture, where knowledge of both BDSM and Kinbaku is limited – and Asiaphilia and sexualised violence against East Asian women  are distressing trends – how do people view and understand these images?

Maybe this is a lesson in the vast differences in racial and sexual context from culture to culture, and how much those differences can completely reconfigure meaning.

Potentially the Oshibari Girls are meant to gain credence for Kinbaku/BDSM – forms of sexual relationship that are more often than not ridiculed and abhorred in mainstream culture.  The Oshibari Girls are “girly” enough to make the argument that they are actually manufactured for sale to women, not men.  God knows a lot of women in North America would like to see submissives celebrated and accepted.  See the blog Pro-SM Feminist Spaces, which is one of many voices on the internet confronting the prejudice that BDSMers face, well, everywhere.

This is just conjecture, I actually have no idea who wears Oshibari Girls.  The only context I’ve seen them in was as a gift from one straight man to another.

But.  When you take the Oshibari Girls and translate them into a shoe ad for men in a Western country, the image totally changes.  Because at the end of the day, I am only comfortable with the iconography of bound women of colour when it is for the consumption of women of colour.

And it’s evidently clear that the Max Shoes ad is not for East Asian women, but for someone else.