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Hojo-Jutsu: Handcuffing’s Forerunner

by Steven J. Kaplan

While law-enforcement today has choices in the type and style of handcuffs they use, most people do not realize that the handcuffing techniques employed have their roots in the Japanese art of hojo-jutsuHojo-Jutsu is the art and skill of restraining a prisoner with a rope.  The word "hojo" itself is translated as "catch rope".  There are many versions of the history of rope use in restraining in Japan, and there is even an art of Shibari, Japanese erotic bondage.  Our material will focus on the generally accepted use of the rope in police and military settings.

As mentioned above, the rope was used for restraining prisoners who were felt to have information their captors felt necessary to obtain.  If that were not the case, they would probably have simply been killed.  The rope itself had different sizes, depending on whether the entire body was tied, hands and arms only, arms leg and neck, and even the thumb only.  While the rope could certainly have other uses in police and military work, hojo-jutsu implies the system of restraint only.

It is felt that the Takeiuchi-ryu, believed to be the oldest/first formal style of JuJutsu, organized the techniques of the rope.  In the 17th century, the Itatsu-ryu adapted the techniques for use by the Japanese police, and formed the foundation for future use in law-enforcement.  The Takagi Yoshin ryu, a JuJutsu style founded in the 17th century, was regarded as a "bodyguard" style.  Nearly all of the kata end with the attacker being held in a position to begin hojo techniques.  What is interesting is that cultural and warrior mores dictated many techniques of hojo-jutsu.  For example, one who was accused of a crime but not yet convicted was securely tied, but the rope had no knots visible to the public.  This would spare him the shame of being bound in public.  It was the officer, guard, or soldier who would hold the end of the rope in leash fashion from behind as the prisoner walked.  A longer rope with more restraining ties was used for long-term binding, transporting, and holding a prisoner during his trial.  In these instances, public display was deemed necessary.  Regardless of which particular tie or combination of ties was used, they reflected knowledge of human anatomy in the placement of the rope on the body. 


Factors taken into account were placement to discourage struggling, minimizing any force a prisoner could exert, and putting pressure on select vital areas if a person chose to resist.  Patterns of the ties ranged from the simple to the very complex.  At its peak, there were approximately 150 ryu, each with its own variations of techniques. The ideal would be to complete a simple tie in under ten seconds.

The average "beat cop" was taught the very basic techniques of hojo-jutsu, under the watchful eye of a senior officer, usually of samurai heritage.  The officer had to be aware of the nature of the crime one was accused of, the social status of the accused, and where in the legal hierarchy the crime ranked.  Not only did this determine the size of the rope and the style of tie, but the color of the rope as well (e.g., white rope for minor offenses, blue for serious offenses, violet for a criminal of high social rank, black for one of low rank.  The color of the rope also changed with the season, as well as the sex of the prisoner).  This practice eventually evolved into a simplified use of two colors corresponding to which branch of law-enforcement one was in. 

What of the hojo's use today, and does it have a place in Taiho-Jutsu?  In Japan, police still use a 6' rope on extremely violent subjects, in addition to handcuffs and leg-irons, as well as when there are multiple subjects they wish to keep together.  Escaping with four or five or more people tied to you is far from easy.  In the U.S., the rope is not used for many obvious reasons, from the practical to the legal.  The military does teach Special Forces to utilize a rope, belt, or even shoelaces to secure a prisoner when traditional handcuffs or leg-irons are not available.  It then becomes a most important skill. The art today is not taught as a separate system, but as part of the curriculum of ninjutsu ryu, as well as some JuJutsu ryu.  There are books on the subject still being written, almost all of which are in Japanese. 

Does hojo-jutsu have a place in Taiho-Jutsu?  If one is referring to the course, the answer is "no".  The time it takes to learn the techniques to the point they could effectively be utilized is prohibitive.  However, in the kyu / dan curriculum, it could certainly be taught to those of Shodan rank and above.

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