Japanese Medicine

What is it?

The basis of many treatments, including shiatsu and reiki. Japanese medicine is rooted in mythology and the indigenous religion, Shintoism (meaning ‘way of the gods’), which holds that everything in nature has a soul or spirit.

The basis of many treatments, including shiatsu and reiki. Japanese medicine is rooted in mythology and the indigenous religion, Shintoism (meaning ‘way of the gods’), which holds that everything in nature has a soul or spirit.

Origins

Legend has it that the creator deities Izanagi and Izanami produced an offspring, Amaterasu, the sun goddess who became the supreme Shinto deity. Ancient people evolved various offering and purification rituals in her honour, to ensure good crops and good health.

Illness was attributed to impurity, malevolent spirits and disgruntled deities. The earliest healing traditions, described in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), were purification and bathing rituals, exorcism and herbal remedies.

Medical ideas brought to Japan by Korean and Chinese monks and physicians in the 5th and 6th centuries and European missionaries in the 16th century were studied and adapted until unique Japanese innovations evolved.
Concepts to the body

Japanese medicine has borrowed from Chinese medicine the concepts of yin (‘in’), yang (‘yo’), the five elements and chi (‘ki’). But it has also developed its own unique emphases, variations and innovations in terms of medical theory and practice, and integrated these with Shinto and Buddhist ideas.

The concept of ki is central and is incorporated in many Japanese words: genki (good flowing ki) means healthy, while byoki (blocked ki) means disease. Ki flows in the body through meridian channels and the Japanese have identified several additional meridian pathways.

Disease patterns are described in terms of two main parameters, kyo (deficiency) and jitsu (excess), with kyo being by far the most important and the main focus of diagnosis and treatment. Cleanliness and purity are seen as the keys to health alongside correct eating, behaviour, respiration, exercise and spiritual devotion.
Diagnosis

Observation (bo-shin) of the tongue, face and gait, and palpation (setsu-shin) are the two most important forms of diagnosis. Observation includes unique forms of microdiagnosis using the fingers and toes. Palpation includes pulse taking, similar to Chinese medicine but different in technique, and also a uniquely Japanese form of abdominal diagnosis. Other diagnostic methods include listening and smelling (bun-shin) and questioning (mon-shin).
Treatment

The aim is to bring one’s life back into balance and in harmony with the laws of nature. This is achieved through adapting the home environment, diet, breathing and other exercises, hydrotherapy and spiritual exercises and by using therapies to treat underlying kyo (deficiency).

Exposure to the beauty of nature is considered paramount and home environments are designed to be calm and uncluttered. Spa baths are popular; many are outdoors and use seasonal plants such as ginger to make warming baths in winter.

Dietary therapy recommends eating seasonal foods and balancing foods from land, sea and mountain. Macrobiotics classifies foods according to their in/yo properties and advocates an increase in alkaline foods to make the body less acidic.

Herbal medicine (kanpo) is highly evolved and has become mainstream. Unique forms of massage, manipulation and acupuncture also have been developed. Energetic healing, including reiki, is popular.
What’s it good for?

Japanese medicine isn’t well known outside Japan, but certain types of Japanese therapy have become popular in the West, especially shiatsu and reiki. Japanese herbal medicine (kanpo) is now taught in the West and has been extensively researched in Japan and incorporated into mainstream medicine for the treatment of many common diseases. Some Western acupuncturists use Japanese techniques.
Finding a practitioner

Shiatsu and reiki practitioners can be contacted through The Reiki Association and the Shiatsu Society. Kanpo practitioners can be found through the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.