Back to: Articles Kris Blog Healing Tao

Politics and History of Shiatsu by Kris Deva North


I’ve been in this ‘business’ of shiatsu healing for almost 20 years and am getting sick of the bureaucracy. So I asked myself how did it happen? There’s a story here...and all is not lost.

The Yellow Emperor of ancient China created foreplay techniques to help sustain the interest of his harem of 1200 wives and concubines. And found that it worked for healing too. A psychologist in modern Japan devised a protocol. And the West institutionalised it.

Huang-Ti (2697-2598 BCE) the Yellow Emperor codified the theory behind the therapy. Treatment, from acupuncture to herbs, he decreed, should vary according to the life-style (obviously!) environment and geographical location of his subjects. For those dwelling in the mild climate of the central regions who were "able to obtain a varied diet without great exertion" massage was recommended to harmonise the elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood and thus maintain spiritual, energetic and physical health - and the interest of however many partners.

Local healing traditions evolved across the "Middle Kingdom" (between Heaven and Earth) and its spheres of influence, from Tibet to Japan, Siberia to Siam. Earth medicine flourished among the Fang Shi - Masters of the the Formula, barefoot healers, witches, wizards and shamans.

Under the Han (208 BCE-220 CE) and successive dynasties religious and magical Taoism emerged, peacefully co-existing with behavourial Confucianism, until the Northern Wei (386-534 CE) saw the rise of Buddhism and persecution of the shamans. Healing had become politicised.

Immortality being considered the best kind of good health, Chinese alchemists sought an Elixir to render their Emperors immortal, retaining a few drops for themselves, but external alchemy lost its appeal when it did for a few courtiers and kings as well as a number of alchemists.

The search continued. Physicians in the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) vivisecting condemned prisoners described flows of energy through certain invisible channels which ceased at the moment of death. If this flow could be sustained...

.....1500 years later: In the 1950s so-called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) synthesised local and traditional approaches and purged the spiritual aspects, overlooking the less obvious magical which had been absorbed into orthodoxy as Five Elements.

20th Century standardised TCM was now fit to be practised alongside dialectically materialist and politically correct western medicine, in the hospitals of a new China.

In modern times things happen fast: In 1977 the Japanese psychologist Shizuto Masunaga and his student Wataru Ohashi developed a complex set of protocols integrating psychotherapeutic thought, meridian connection and physical pressure.

Masunaga described how to induce the phenomenon that occurs between meridian points under pressure, and published it as Zen Shiatsu - how to harmonise Yin and Yang for better health. By making his name and system synonymous with Zen Shiatsu Masunaga reinforced the trend towards standardisation.

But in the post-war restoration of Japan the rival and even more rationalistic Namikoshi system, based on western neurology, became the one officially recognised.

Shiatsu went West and found a welcome among the eclectic materialists of the New Age. Yin, Yang and Zen, it involved touch, was supported by an suitably complex theory, alleviated symptoms of many chronic conditions resistant to orthodox medicine and could reduce the need for medication.

Described as a Japanese form of physiotherapy by certain Western Schools, the intuitive loving-touch practised by barefoot blind healers wearing red head-bands became the subject of theses and dissertations by earnest people in white.

The gap between rational/physical and traditional/spiritual began to close with the publication in 1988 of Hara Diagnosis - Reflections on the Sea. Matsumoto & Birch wrote of the flicker of life, the moving Qi between the kidneys, and explored the connections between Eastern and Western medicine.

In 1989 at the Columbia Hotel in London Dr Motoyama and his Qi-machine demonstrated energy flowing through the connective tissues at 1.5 volts - hey, presto! energy is real, meridians exist! But among the dignitaries present, representing interests from scientific to esoteric, there were those who feared an end to their mystique.

Shiatsu-related techniques multiplied in the 80’s and 90’s with the development of such as Ohashiatsu - Touch for Love, Shizuko Yamamoto’s Barefoot Shiatsu, Macrobiotic Shiatsu, Mantak Chia’s Chi Nei Tsang: internal organ energy massage, Five-Element Shiatsu, energy-shiatsu - kiatsu, water-shiatsu or watsu, even tantric: tanatsu. Unrecognised was the one style licensed by the Japanese Ministry of Health.

Potential for harmony between the main approaches, Masunaga-Zen, Five-Elements and TCM was illustrated in 1995 by Carola Beresford Cooke in Shiatsu Theory & Practice. Then, in 1996, the English Zen Shiatsu Master, Simon Fall, inspired a return to the Source with As Snowflakes Fall, Shiatsu as Spiritual Practice.

Realisation dawned: its not all just finger-push!

Two years after Fall, the American acupuncturist, Lonny Jarrett, wrote Nourishing Destiny, the Inner Tradition of Chinese Medicine reviving the spiritual origins excised by Mao’s dialectical materialists.

Shiatsu in the West was ready to enter the new millenium. But the shadow of European bureacracy threatened English freedom to practise, since the repeal of the witchcraft legislation in 1947, any complementary therapy without restriction or, indeed, qualification.

On the principle that if more than two Englishmen gather they start a club British institutionalism proliferated. Playing politics in the race for orthodoxy and acceptance by what they perceived as the Establishment, Shiatsu organisations vied for authenticity with regulation, examination, assessment, accreditation, validation and moderation in apparent belief that more rules would attract a greater membership with a louder voice in the meridians of power, not to mention subscription income.

Competition intensified. Rumours of poaching rippled through the bazaars. Databases disappeared to resurface under clouds of denial in rival offices.

While older organisations stagnated in vested interests, elitism and exclusivity, nouveau upstarts canvassed bewildered students and practitioners with the relentless enthusiasm of a time-share seller.

Fragmentation ruled in the world of gentle healing until early in 2001 when Tom Litten, a former trades-union organiser whose love of Shiatsu equalled his passion for politics, called a meeting of the rivals. The General Shiatsu Council was born, to front a unified team in the game of Europe.

Beyond the politics, the Zen Tao Shiatsu Practitioner uses the caring touch of love, drawing down Heaven Qi to cleanse and Earth Qi up to heal. The spirit of real Shiatsu, following a proven theory based on the ebb and flow of the force known as Qi, bioelectromagnetic energy or energy-intelligence, throughout the organ-meridian networks.

Zen Tao Shiatsu combines the wisdom of the Tao with the Beginner’s Mind of Zen, trusting in the perfection of now, however it should manifest.

Shiatsu compassion healing massage.jpg (34588 bytes)

Based on an article originally published in Positive Health magazine entitled Ancient Techniques for the 21st Century.

Thanks for reading. Click here for the ideas and principles of Zen Tao Shiatsu. Anyone can do it and its based on sensitivity, love and compassion, - just like in the old days.


March 11, 2005 3:52 AM
Subject: Politics of Shiatsu

Dear Kris:
I'm an undergraduate student who is studying/practicing Shiatsu in Kyoto. I am extremely interested in
your approach to Shiatsu, and your views about the politics of Shiatsu. I found your paper, Politics of
Shiatsu through google, and found it to be the most inclusive resource
on the internet about the history of Shiatsu! Thanks for creating such a valuable resource.Keep doing
what your doing. Be peaceful.

Back to: Articles Kris Blog Healing Tao