"Seme" in Japan and kinbaku


Seme 責め


"Beads of sweat started forming, matting her hair on her forehead as her breath starts quickening. This was the first time I heard Hana cry out….

“Muri” (I can’t do it).” “Just a bit more, you can take it,” I whisper in her ear.

Suddenly, her quickened breath transforms into deep long breath, and a quiet, almost tranquil, serenity sweeps across her face and body. I hold her there for a while longer, and then slowly lower her to the ground…"


 

Tying with Hana at Senkaku, Osaka

While the Japanese word ‘seme’ is often misunderstood to mean torture, infliction of physical pain or brutality within a BDSM context, the term is context-driven and does not necessarily denote these elements. In Japan it is just as common to come across the word in everyday conversation as it is to hear it in BDSM contexts where it tends to imbue a much deeper meaning touching on physical or psychological approaches or practices of dominance and surrender. What does it actually mean, though? Unfortunately, due to its multifarious and context-dependent meaning, this is not easily answered with a one liner. If I were to try, then perhaps "inducing suffering" or "inducing a state of surrender." would be most suitable. Even many of the people in Japan whom I spoke with seemed to have some difficulty offering a single concrete definition.


*For linguistic understanding ‘seme’ is the noun form of the verb ‘semeru.’


 

Even in general everyday usage seme is often used to express a situation where one party exerts pressure or authority to cause the other to yield or expose themselves. This is often brought about through creating a sense of physical suffering or psychologically inducing and amplifying a sense of helplessness of some degree. That said, the degree is varies on a scale of one to ten. In non-kinky everyday settings such as workplace or even romantic relationships ‘seme’ may simply point to verbal or behavioral reprimand or casting blame on someone for a particular deed. In these contexts, one party assumes (but may not necessarily hold) an authority or higher stature over the over the other person by casting blame on someone for a fault or negligence in degrees ranging from light chastising to reprimanding at a level that may be considered verbal or emotional abuse. “watashi wo semeru na” (“don’t talk down to me”) is a common phrase that you might hear come across in conversation with someone who feels they are being unfairly reprimanded. On the flip side, one may also do this unto oneself, as an action of self-blaming or self-condemnation. The phrase 自分を責める”jibun wo semeru” (lit. to self-seme) is often used in the same way we would say “Don’t beat yourself up about it,” in English.

Moreover, in more recent times, albeit typically amongst younger generations, the word ‘seme’ is often used in more lighter contexts of non-kinky sexual relations to simply refer to the act of taking the lead or taking control in the bedroom. Although I haven’t conducted thorough research into this, it appears though, that this usage is a more modern/colloquial construct, and probably wouldn’t be used or understood in this context by most of the older generations.


There are certainly many more everyday situations where I have heard this word thrown around, and despite the lightness of its use when compared to the deeper nuances imbued within kinbaku contexts, the common themes of “yield/expose” “surrender” “exertion of control or authority to cause suffering” seem to remain present to some degree or another.

 

Seme-nawa (meaning: ‘seme’ focused rope bondage) refers to an approach within kinbaku that focuses on the use of ropes to physically restrain the body in difficult to endure positions, or situations, with the intention of coercing the receiver up to, or beyond their limits (comfort zones), and into a state of physical and psychological surrender.


While utilizing physical restraint to create suffering or forced endurance of pain is a strong focus in seme-nawa, pain is not a necessarily a present element. Seme-nawa may focus on psychological responses to vulnerability or shame. Even in the former the focus is often less on pain and more on inducing physical or psychological suffering to break down inhibitions and expose what lay deep behind the “walls of protection” that we tend to build around us in our everyday. For heavily pain-focused rope or BDSM the word "goumon" (torture) would most likely be used in place of seme.

As we know fear or sense of insecurity tend to be the factors inhibiting us from letting go of control. While pain is a physical response that alerts us to dangers, in many cases it our mental fear—fear of reproach or ridicule, fear of being vulnerable, fear of giving up control—is what exacerbates felt pain and blocks one from going past their comfort zones and exposing that deeper part of themselves. Thus, while a heavy hand is often a tool for moving past these blockades, creating a sense of security and a safe environment for the person is also an essential element in any kind of seme-nawa.

 

Other words: seme-te (lit. dominant hand), uke-te (lit. receiving hand or submissive)



*This is a blog. The writings are all based on my own observations and experiences living in Japan and being involved in the kinbaku world, over the past 12 years. I speak Japanese in my everyday life and have a solid understanding of the language. That said, I am not a trained linguist nor would I assume to have conducted extensive research.



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