Shiatsu can reduce the effects of stress on body and nudge it back towards a healthy state of balance. It was then that Tokujiro chose these words as a slogan for his technique: “The heart of shiatsu is like a mother’s love. Pressing the body stimulates the fountains of life.” It was a reflection of his attitude of caring and healing.
Kensen Saito, Shiatsu-doh
The following excerpt was taken from the book Shiatsu-doh, by Kensen Saito pp.13-17, detailing how Tokujiro Namikoshi came to establish Shiatsu Therapy.
I learned to practice shiatsu from the man who developed it as it is practiced today in Japan: Tokujiro Namikoshi. He developed the technique as a child to ease his mother’s pain. Tokujiro was born November 3, 1905, into a family with four brothers and sisters. His father had an umbrella business on Shikoku Island, in the southern part of Japan. One year, the weather was so wet and cold that the glue would not dry on the umbrellas in time to meet the deadline of a big order from China, so his father was forced to declare bankruptcy. The family moved to Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island. It was a long, tough trip in late autumn, and the extremely cold, harsh weather was a drastic change from the warm, mild climate they were used to. When they finally reached their destination, they found it to be quite a primitive place: a simple hut with no heat or running water. They settled in as best as they could under the stressful circumstances, but soon Tokujiro’s mother was suffering terribly from aches and pains in all her joints. She had developed rheumatoid arthritis.
In such a remote area, there was no doctor and nothing could be done for her, so her five children took turns rubbing her sore joints in an effort to ease the discomfort. After a while, she told Tokujiro that his hands were the best at relieving her pain. He took on the job as her physical therapist, while his brothers and sisters divided up the household chores. Eventually his mother said to him, “When you press instead of rub, I feel much better.” So he concentrated on doing that. One day, he was pressing different areas when he came across a point that felt very cold and stiff. He spent some time and effort pressing on it, and his mother said it eased her pain. He continued to press that point daily. The more the hard spot softened under his thumb, the more relief his mother felt and the faster she recovered. Eventually, with the help of Tokujiro’s treatment, his mother’s rheumatoid arthritis disappeared. She lived into her late 80s in good health.
Up until that time in Japan, massage through stroking or rubbing was widely known, including the Chinese technique called anma, as well as European techniques. Instinctively, human beings have always used the hands to ease pain. When we have a headache, we rub our temples; when we have a stomachache, we rub our abdomen with our palms. Throughout history we can find many examples of the use of the hands to heal. Saints laid their hands on people to perform miracles of healing. Massage was well known in ancient Greece, and for hundreds of years it has been used in India. The innovation developed by Tokujiro Namikoshi was to use the pressure of the thumbs, fingers and palms over the whole body. As a technique, it is significantly different from all the others.
It evidently came naturally to Tokujiro to be a therapist. In his small village, the message spread quickly through word of mouth that this boy was something special. When his mother told a Buddhist monk visiting the village about her son’s deeds, the monk became convinced Tokujiro was the reincarnation of a high-ranking monk who had lived years ago and healed many people in his lifetime. When the wife of Tokujiro’s school principal found that she was unable to produce milk to nurse her newborn baby, the principal asked Tokujiro to help. He used his pressing techniques, and the woman started to produce milk freely for her child. The principal addressed a special school assembly about the wonderful gifts Tokujiro had shared to help his mother and the principal’s family, and it made the boy feel proud and happy. He decided at that moment that he would dedicate his life to using the pressing techniques to help people.
The Buddhist monk began to take him on his rounds to visit villagers who were having problems with aches and pains. Tokujiro applied his natural abilities to great success. When Tokujiro was in his late teens, the monk took him to the nearest city, where they planned to try out his skills on city dwellers. Unfortunately, shortly after they arrived, they were arrested by the police for practicing without a license. Tokujiro was held in custody overnight, then headed straight home to his village the next day. After telling his family about the experience, his older brother advised him to go to Tokyo and get a license to use his techniques.
In those days in Japan, there were only two kinds of manual therapy: a Western-style massage and the ancient Chinese massage technique anma. Tokujiro studied anma under an expert and got his license for both anma and massage. He then returned to Hokkaido and opened his first clinic in the city of Muroran. However, he offered neither anma nor massage, just the pressing techniques he had developed himself. He pondered what he should call his methods. He came across the word shiatsu in a magazine article referring to finger pressure, and he liked it. Although at the time he was using mostly thumb pressure, in Japanese the thumb and four fingers are all referred to as fingers, so the word shiatsu described very well what he was doing.
As he continued to practice, Tokujiro studied anatomy and physiology and developed a scientific theory to explain how shiatsu works. He came to understand that when he had pressed certain points on his mother’s body it had been like giving her natural cortisone shots because he was stimulating her adrenal gland. He knew doctors used cortisone shots effectively to treat joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, for example. When he found out that the body can produce its own cortisone, he couldn’t help but wonder why physicians had resorted to using cortisone made by a pharmaceutical company. Other results turned out to have similar scientific explanations. The more he studied and thought, the more he came to believe that the body has everything it needs – it produces all of the chemicals necessary to heal itself. Under stress, the body is put in a state of imbalance and does not produce the right amount of healthy chemicals. Instead, it can produce destructive substances. Shiatsu can reduce the effects of stress on the body and nudge it back towards a healthy state of balance. It was then that Tokujiro chose these words as a slogan for his technique: “The heart of shiatsu is like a mother’s love. Pressing the body stimulates the fountains of life.” It was a reflection of his attitude of caring and healing.
When Tokujiro was 25 years old, in the early days of his practice, the famous philosopher Gohei Ishimaru came to Hokkaido by train one day to deliver a lecture to an audience of 2,000, a much anticipated event sponsored by the local newspaper. Ishimaru was in a weakened condition and had to deliver his lectures sitting down instead of standing at a lectern. When he arrived at the Sapporo railway station, he fell and injured himself. He thought he would have to cancel his appearance that night. The sponsors from the newspaper were in a panic. One writer had heard about Tokujiro Namikoshi’s reputation, so they called on him for help. He went to the inn where the philosopher was staying and treated him until he appeared to be much better. Instead of cancelling, Ishimaru made a two-hour speech – standing up! He himself was amazed at his heightened physical strength and well-being. “Your thumbs are very precious,” he said to Tokujiro. “I want to insure them.” He insured Tokujiro’s thumbs for 100,000 yen – that’s the equivalent of $10 million today! The story made the national newspaper.
Ishimaru counselled Tokujiro that if he wanted to spread the word about shiatsu nationwide he should practice in Tokyo where many people from all walks of life could benefit from it. By that time, Tokujiro was married and had children, but he took the philosopher’s advice, gave his Hokkaido clinic to a relative and moved his family to Tokyo. Ishimaru introduced him to many influential people, but shiatsu was so new and unknown that it took many years before Tokujiro successfully established and expanded his practice. He had to move seven times, usually because he could not pay the rent. When he moved for the eighth time, he told himself, “This is where I stay, fail or succeed. I won’t move again!” His shiatsu college is still in that very place today. It is where I myself studied.
In his early years of practice, Tokujiro did mostly house calls and was limited to helping seven or eight people a day. But because he had come to Tokyo to spread the practice of his methods, he decided to start teaching. In 1940, he established his school and began to train shiatsu practitioners. Eventually, they approached the government to ask it to legally recognize shiatsu. After the Second World War, the American general Douglas McArthur directed the Japanese health ministry for some years. There were more than 300 unregulated therapies in Japan at the time, so McArthur ordered scientists at the universities to research all of them and document which ones had scientific proof of merit and which did not. At the end of the eight years, the universities reported back that shiatsu was the only therapy backed up by scientific research. In 1955, the Japanese health ministry legally recognized shiatsu and it became a licensed therapy. Unfortunately, massage, shiatsu and traditional anma massage all come under one license in Japan, which is very confusing for people; that also means that people who get a license in one of the other therapies can hang out a shiatsu sign when they really have no shiatsu training at all.