The history of Shiatsu


The word Shiatsu means finger pressure in Japanese. It describes a form of healing which, along with massage, Acupuncture and Herbalism, has been an integral part of traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine for centuries.

Following the introduction of Chinese Medicine into Japan in the 6th century AD the Japanese refined Chinese massage techniques into a practice of massage known as Anma. Anma had been officially recognized by the Japanese medical authorities in the 8th century AD. Over the centuries Anma lost its popularity, but was revived and reintroduced into medical studies in the late 1800s. Japanese doctors of this period were required to study the philosophy and practice of Anma.

During the twentieth century, Shiatsu distinguished itself from Anma through the merging of Western knowledge of anatomy, acupressure, and a variety of eastern healing practices. Shiatsu established itself in Japan though the work of Tamai Tempaku, and Tokujiro Namikoshi and the Shiatsu Therapists Association was founded in 1925. In the following decades students of Tempaku began developing offshoots of Shiatsu. By 1955, the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare acknowledged Shiatsu as a beneficial treatment, and licensing was established for practitioners.

Tokujiro Namikoshi is most responsible for the worldwide recognition of Shiatsu. He created a system of bodywork based on modern Western anatomy, physiology and pathology and concentrated on applying pressure to reflex points that relate to the central and autonomic nervous system rather than to the classical meridians. In 1940 he opened the Nippon Shiatsu Institute in Tokyo, now known as Japan’s Shiatsu College. Shiatsu thus emerged as a form of manual therapy incorporating gentle manipulations and stretches derived from newer disciplines such as physiotherapy, osteopathy and chiropractic, with pressure techniques exerted through the fingers or thumbs.

In Japan today there are two distinct forms of Shiatsu; one developed by Tokujiro Namikoshi and another by a former student of his, Shizuto Masunaga. The method developed by Masunaga combines Western physiology with the traditional Oriental medical teachings, and is known as Zen Shiatsu. This is the most common form in the west today. Oriental Medicine, and therefore Shiatsu, uses the philosophy of Yin and Yang, the five elements and Ki energy.

The philosophy underlying Shiatsu is that vital energy (known as Ki in Japanese and Chi in Chinese) flows throughout the body in a series of channels called meridians. For many different reasons Ki can stop flowing freely and this produces a symptom or pain. Ki moves throughout the whole body but, in certain defined pathways, it flows in a more concentrated manner. These pathways are known as meridians.

The meridians form a continuous circuit of lines that allows the flow of different aspects of Ki all over the body. Each meridian is named after a physical organ.

The aim of Shiatsu is to determine where the Ki or energy is blocked in the body or not flowing correctly. The practitioner will work with the energy in the meridians to help rebalance the body. Most acupuncture points lie on meridians, and Shiatsu practitioners will sometimes hold specific points. Shiatsu differs from Acupuncture (and Acupressure) in that it is more usual to work on the meridian as a whole rather than isolated points, combining treatment with a range of physiotherapy, osteopathy and chiropractic techniques were relevant.