Tenchijin in Shibari


Tenchijin History

Upright (chokutai) Moribana.

“Ikebana developed from an inherent appreciation of nature, fundamental to the Buddhist tendencies which had reached Japan around 500-600 BC and the art form grew slowly from the appreciation of plant life, evolving into a subtle art of manipulation, geometry and performance. The evolution of Ikebana saw a cultural practice emerge that specific arrangements of stems and leaves performed a symbolic representation of the universe, by providing a visual balance between heaven, earth and man (Tenchijin) to reflect the harmony of the environment embedded in eastern philosophy.” (Mortimer)

Those with an eye for it, will quickly recognize that this particular aesthetic arrangement is very similar in intention to the application of the golden ratio. Operating on a variation of the rule of thirds, in this case, the thirds are referred to as the Sansai (the three powers; 三才), categorized as “heaven, earth, and man” (天地人). Though the explicit reference to the Sansai seems to have developed in the early 1600s, the usage and application of this aesthetic principle in Ikebana wasn’t established until around 1801 by Shosei Teishosai Yoneichiba.

Dry history aside, this concept managed to form a sort of blue print for a certain measure of pleasing composition; that is to say, the structure of the flower arrangement looks nice. This was measured rather precisely by the proportions of each stem (usually three stems or plants), the longest stem represents heaven, the shortest represents the earth, and the stem of mid-length represents man.

Application of Tenchijin in Shibari

The specific proportions vary slightly between different traditions of ikebana, they are all roughly within the same general comparison, and as such, when I teach the application of this concept in shibari, I emphasize recognizing the three stems or points of reference, and positioning them in a similar fashion to that of the ikebana concept of tenchijin to attempt to create a three dimensional scene that is interesting and pleasing to the eyes.

Iroha Shizuki tied by Akira Naka, in the production “Nawa Etsu Vol-1”.

One such rope artist that appears to have developed in this direction (knowingly or otherwise), is Akira Naka, a rather well known practitioner of kinbaku who always seems to create masterful and exceptionally beautiful scenes in his performances. Though his style is more centered on very challenging and strenuous ties that encourage sadomasochism to be put on display, even those not drawn to the beauty of suffering can see the form and composition of his art and appreciate it as such.

To reiterate the composition here: the top stem (usually the models head), is the highest point; heaven. While the lowest point is often times a leg or foot, or even a prop to draw the attention down; this is earth. Man exists between heaven and earth, and as such is in between the two points. However, it would be a dry composition if the middle point were right in the middle, thus it is either slightly closer to the highest point, or the lowest.

Viewing the ratios discussed thus far, it is noticed that the ratios of “ten”, “jin” : “ten” and “chi” : “jin” resemble each other. It has been found that this ratio resembles the “golden section” (1:1.618 = 0.618:1), which defines the formal beauty of the architecture of ancient Greece and Egypt and also that of the contemporary art design.

From “ikebana buntai zushiki” in hte mid Edo period.

The reason why the roles of heaven, earth and man were assigned to these basic stems derives from Buddhism. It originates from a way of expressing the universe using two basic stems like “the sum of things arises between
heaven and earth” which is a doctrine from the Buddhist Mandela. The stem representing man placed between those of heaven and earth also derives from the thought of Buddhism, viz., that “man is precious only because he
is a part of all creation existing between heaven and earth.” Many schools bend the stems and branches with special techniques to deform them to make them more suited to their roles. (Saito and Furuya)



Primary Sources:

  • Ikebana buntai zushiki. Unknown date and author.
  • Sansai Zue. compiled by Wang Qi (Chinese: 王圻) and his son Wang Siyi (Chinese: 王思义) completed in 1607 and published in 1609.

Shingyoso in Shibari

Shingyoso 真行草

In Japanese culture, the term Shingyōsō (真行草) has it’s roots in many sources; This is a concept that can be found in everything from Toshi Keikaku (City, urban, and town planning; 都市計画), to the categorization of utensils found in Sadō (Tea Ceremony; 茶道), it is however most known for its use in Shodō (Calligraphy; 書道). In general this system can be thought of as a measure of formality:

  • Shin 真 represents the most formal or symmetrically structured. For city planning this would refer to the cities that have a rectangular perimeters and orthogonal axes, and are regarded as formal cities. [1] In tea ceremony, when offering tea to a noble, or at a shrine or temple, a matched set of bronze utensils from China is used with a specific utensil stand. These are really (formal) utensils.[2] In the case of calligraphy, this would be recognized for being quite crisp and font-like, often times with sharp serif while other times without any such flourishes. This would be used for more clerical situations such as temple administrative documentation.
  • Gyō 行 represents a semi-formal presentation of the art in question. for traditional urban settlements in Japan, gyō would be the castle town. These towns usually have a combination of the other two styles and may be called ‘Gyō‘ cities. The center area in castle towns usually follows the curve of the castle moat, while the perimeter may be more rigid or relaxed. [1] For Tea ceremony, this would represent utensils between Japanese ceramics and bamboo and that of Chinese steel wear, and as such, is semi-formal. [2] lastly, for calligraphy, this would be the equivalent to general handwriting found in English, commonly used for daily communication, note-taking, and illustrates a bit of character from the author. [3]
  • Sō 草 is completely informal, and though may not be welcome in many high-etiquette venues, is none the less appreciated for its Wabi-sabi qualities and character. The cities located further inland were developed along the water routes, and respond to the curves found in the rivers and waterways. These cities therefore are
    The character of “mu” (nothingness; 無) written in the three levels of formality.

    planned in ‘Sō’ style. [1] In contrast to these Chinese utensils there are ceramics made in Japan that have an earthy flavor and simple utensils made of bamboo and wood that bring out the quality of their materials just as they are. These are ‘‘ (informal) utensils. [2] Lastly, Cursive script. Also called Grass script. Flowing style, with slender lines, and composed with rapid fluid strokes. This is the type most often used in formal Japanese calligraphy.

Now that we have established the nature of the concept Shingyōsō, we get to the question of “what does this have to do with shibari?”

Hojojutsu 捕縄術

Well, as one may have been made aware of, many of the ties used in shibari, and many more that are still in development, were inspired, borrowed, or derived from Hojōjutsu, the martial art of rope arresting.

Interestingly, the practices of arresting the opponent with rope presents one of the most clear examples of Shingyōsō available in the martial arts. There are a few ryūha (traditions) in particular that made use of Shingyōsō quite explicitly, such as Ichiden-ryū, Taishō-ryū, Kentoku-ryū, Sasai-ryū, and Hōen-ryū, where many of the ties have variations that increased in complexity as they were considered more formal. Each stage expresses the progression from informal to formal via placement and complexity of the rope on the captive.

“Shingyōsō no Honnawa Funyū-ban” (真行草之本縄不入番) of Ichiden-ryū (一傳流).

Alternatively, for some traditions, the ties were divided up in measure of expected longevity, where was for temporary ties for use with the short rope in immediate capture situations, while Shin was the category for the more permanent ties performed using the longer rope, and of course the Gyō ties were for anything in between that.

Shibari 縛り

In the matters of shibari, it’s a bit more of an aesthetic of “completeness” or “unfinishedness”. Many times in class I’ll be showing a tie, and stop to state, “this is the tie”, and then continue either with the rest of the rope in hand, or with adding more rope. This pause is “sō”, it has done it’s job, but it gives the feeling of being incomplete. This can manifest in the examples from Ipponnawa, or from examples of Kuzushi (untidy, unbalanced; 崩し). The rope covers little and is often times asymmetrical.

An example of “so” (草) in shingyoso. A single length of rope expressing simplicity.

Though simple and for some dis-interesting, this level of informality requires the least amount of nit-picking (finite knot tying), as it is oftentimes covering the most space with the least complexity. This allows for greater flourish, flow, and a focus on other things (such as play).

Shin, by contrast, it a sort of complete, well structured, and solid seeming architecture of tying. Here, things are usually pretty symmetrical, and it is usually at this point that some would consider a box tie (for example) to be suspension worthy, though such may not always be the case.

“Tonbo Shibari” (Dragonfly tie; 蜻蛉), here is illustrating “gyo” of Shingyoso (真行草).

Finally, Gyō is in-between, it is neither highly structured, nor is it loose and relaxed like sō. This sort of level is often suitable for partial-suspensions. Interestingly, one could almost measure shingyōsō by how much rope is used: one rope is , two is gyō, and three is Shin, though it would be very shallow to say that this is the case, it almost equates here.

But to delve down that rabbit hole would be to digress. Shingyōsō in shibari is a matter of recognizing a certain degree of formality in the ties and the qualities that are made available thereof. More on the matter can be gleamed from the workshop on this very subject:


[1] Shintaro HanazawaYukio NishimuraTakeru KitazawaNaota NakajimaShin, Gyo, So: The Traditional Concepts of Spatial Design in Japan. (2004)
[2]  Omotesenke Fushin’an Foundation. Shin-gyo-so (formal semi-formal, informal) ranking of utensils. (2005)
[3] Schumacher, Mark. Shodou – Japanese Calligraphy, Literally “The Way of Writing”. (2013).
[4] Seiko, Fujita. Zukai Hojojutsu. (1986).