Story of Shiatsu | The Reivention of Finger Pressure

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We have no history

June 26, 2024

In recent years, our global community of Shiatsu practitioners has become keenly aware of the lack of a cohesive history of Shiatsu. Gradually, we have come to realize that there are too many loose ends, too many gaps and too many conflicting subjective narratives sprinkled with mythological bedtime stories. So, how have we arrived to this situation in the field of Shiatsu where we can say that we have no history? Pondering on this question, at some point I realized that since we ask ourselves the question ”how did we get here?” and since we obviously don’t know the answer, it could be a sign that we are about to awaken from a dream. Because, that is what Shiatsu looks like to me right now: a collective dreaming that we are about to awaken from. Once we are awakened to a truth that may not align with our expectations, what will we choose? Will we find the power to face a harsh reality or will we escape to yet another dream?

Anma Kurakata Hiromasa Collection

The strangest feature of the situation

In 1875 at the hospital of the University of Leipzig, a talented young German doctor named Erwin vonBälz (Erwin Baelz) had the opportunity to treat one of the many Japanese exchange students who had been sent by the Meiji government to observe the Western civilization. Clearly, Dr. Baelz made a lasting impression on his patient, as he soon was offered a two-year contract by the Japanese government to teach at the Medical College of Tokyo Imperial University starting in 1876. Dr. Erwin Baelz went on to become one of highest influential foreign advisors to Japan as he not only taught Western medicine to over 800 Japanese students at the university for 27 years, but also was even appointed as personal physician-in-waiting to Emperor Meiji and the Imperial household in 1902. Unsurprisingly, Erwin Baelz was named by some “the father of modern medicine in Japan.” Toku Baelz edited his farther’s memoirs in a book published in 1932 titled “Awakening Japan: the diary of a German doctor: Erwin Baelz” and this is where we find one of the most valuable testimony on the real life in the Meiji Japan. We should bear in mind that this insight is coming to us through the lens of a keen Eurocentric observer who witnessed the daily life in Meiji Japan firsthand. As he found himself immersed into a completely different culture, Baelz writes “with the sober eyes of a foreigner” in 1876 in his diary about ”the strangest feature of the situation” in these words: 

University of Tokyo, Faculty of Medicine, Class of 1880, wikiCommons

University of Tokyo, Faculty of Medicine, Class of 1880, wikiCommons

“The Japanese have their eyes fixed exclusively on the future, and are impatient when a word is said of their past. The cultured among them are actually ashamed of it. ’That was in the days of barbarism,’ said one of them…” Another Japanese friend, questioned about Japanese history by Baelz, replied: ”We have no history. Our history begins today.” [*]

Opening Thoughts

Dr. Baelz’s testimony brilliantly captures the very essence of the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which Shiatsu originated. The tension and unease caused by the encroachment of Western influence on Japanese society are almost palpable in this statement. It speaks to the desire to break away from what used to be considered a shameful past and start anew without any ties to history. Exploring these contexts from various perspectives will be central in telling the story of the emergence and the later development of Shiatsu. Right from the first reading, this quote struck a chord within me. I could sense the magnitude of its significance in probing into the daily life in the Meiji Japan. What I also felt was that it can be mapped onto the history of Shiatsu at a deeper level. I felt like someone distilled the entire history of Shiatsu in just a few words.  This quote inspired me to rethink the telling of the entire story of Shiatsu focusing on the perpetual conflict with an inconvenient past.

The great wave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai, 1831, Wiki Commons

Tracing the pattern

I started to analyze each chapter of the history of Shiatu searching for the echoes of “the strangest feature of the situation”.  My analysis begins with Tamai Tenpeki, then move to Tokujiro Namikoshi and then Shizuto Masunaga. Finally, my analysis will be focused on the contemporary history of Shiatsu. I am looking for the transition moments in the history of Shiatsu, exploring hoe each master who came to the forefront of Shiatsu dealt with the legacy of his predecessor’s.

 

As totally expected, the “We have no history” ideological mold is deeply ingrained and thus easily observable in the first chapter of the history of Shiatsu. Before we dive deeper in this chapter, a brief note on the context. In the late Edo period, by shogunal orders, the traditional Japanese massage known as Anma went to be reserved almost exclusively for poorly trained visually impaired therapists and relegated to relaxation massage. Clearly, Tenpeki was aiming to position Shiatsu as a healing modality with a strong therapeutical repertoire and at the same time was also running from association with Anma. Straight to the point, I consider Tamai Tenpeki to be a synchretist as he went at great lengths to portray Shiatsu as a completely new method anchored in modern medical knowledge despite preserving elements of spiritual healing in the theoretical core of Shiatsu. Tenpeki aligned his new method with his contemporary dominant cultural trends: distancing as much as possible from anything Asian, anything traditional and searching for legitimacy in modern medical sciences. Aiming this high, Tenpeki was unable or unwilling to reconcile with the inconvenient past: Shiatsu definitely had its roots in traditional massage Anma and in traditional medical doctrines, but acknowledging this lineage would risk to downgrade his new method as well to the relaxation massage. The only option left on the table is to position Shiatsu as a completely new method, with no historical roots. This clearly indicates that Tenpeki was compelled to say that ”Shiatsu has no history. History of Shiatsu begins today”.

Next I shifted my focus to the postwar chapter in the history of Shiatsu which is clearly dominated by the legacy of Tokujiro Namikoshi. I wasn’t expecting to find traces of the strangest feature in this chapter but a change of perspective ocurred at some point.  In the bleak postwar Japan, Namikoshi took upon himself the challenging task to revigorate the dwindling flames of Shiatsu. Namikoshi understood perfectly that synchretization of finger pressure was not a viable option anymore and there was no more time for half measures. Most likely, tt was the presence of the elements of spiritual healing in the core of Shiatsu that prevented Tamai Tenpeki’s Shiatsu from receiving official endorsement from the medical establishment. Learning from his predecessor’s mistakes, Namikoshi pursued a different ideological path for the reformation of the finger pressure. All the elements of spiritual healing that Tamai Tenpeki strove to preserve were removed from Shiatsu and replaced with a even higher volume of elements of modern medical sciences which inspired me to label this chapter as the scientization of finger pressure. Thus, Namikoshi style severs ties with the past and claims to be grounded in a completely scientific theoretical foundation. This strategy garnered even higher following for Namikoshi and for the first time in the history of Shiatsu even the official medical establishment supported his ”new method”. However, following in Tenpeki’s footsteps, Namikoshi found himself in the impossibility of acknowledging his predecessor. Again, Namikoshi Shiatsu couldn’t be reconciled with Tenpeki’s Shiatsu and Namikoshi had to distance himself from the inconvenient past or would have risked to undermine the privileged status his style enjoyed. Namikoshi Shiatsu had its roots in Tenpeki’s Shiatsu just as Tenpeki’s Shiatsu has its roots in Anma. But, this lineage was not one to be  proud of, but instead was something to try to distance from. Thus, it has become to press the reset button once more on the history of Shiatsu and space was created for” a complete new” beginning. Tamai Tenpeki’s  memory has been almost completely overshadowed by Namikoshi’s high clinical achievements and by the unprecedented obtaining of the official recognition for Shiatsu. At this point, I consider I have brought enough arguments to demonstrate that the ”We have no history” ideological mold is completely identifiable in the second chapter of the history of Shiatsu as well.

As soon as I discovered the strangest feature of the situation in the postwar chapter it was relatively easy to move to the third chapter, which I prefer to call the ”traditionalization of finger pressure”. It looked like the ”scientization” of finger pressure was the final chapter in the history of Shiatsu especially after Namikoshi obtained exclusively the official recognition for his school and for his method. But, the pattern takes no exceptions. A certain promising young teacher at Namikoshi’s school, Shizuto Masunaga signed the ”death certificate” for the ”scientization” of finger pressure even when Namikoshi’s method was still enjoying a solid reputation in Japan. However, Masunaga clearly understood that there has been way too much modern science forced into the foundations of the finger pressure and with too little bearing on the clinic. Therefore, Masunaga resigned in 1968 his teaching position at Japan Shiatsu College and embarked on a different path of reformation of finger pressure. For the first time in the history of Shiatsu, it looked like the finger pressure was coming home, in the great family of traditional medical modalities. However, a rebel intellectual like Masunaga will never shy away from outraging his contemporaries with his interpretations of core principles. Masunaga took many creative liberties in his attempts to ”traditionalize” the application of finger pressure and his style gained an incredible popularity in the Western hemisphere in stark contrast with his relative low-profile in Japan. Although I have named this chapter in the history of Shiatsu  ”traditionalization of finger pressure”, I have to clarify that Masunaga escapes my attempts to categories his legacy. In his efforts to traditionalize the finger pressure, Masunaga experienced again with synchretization and also drawned on his scientific training background in psychology. Masunga’s ideas were met with an incredible success in the Western hemisphere starting in the late 1970’s mostly because here it found a large segment of population disillusioned with modern biomedicine and who was on the look for a more spiritual take on disease and healing. Again, the pattern takes no exceptions. Masunaga’s radical departure from his predecessor’s ideological orientation positioned him in strong opposition to his former mentor, Tokujiro Namikoshi, and thus his chapter was impossible to be reconciled with the previous chapter in the history of Shiatsu.

Resources

Bibliography & Notes

[1] “Syncretize.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/syncretize. Accessed 25 May. 2023.
 
[2 ]Syncretization. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved May 25 2023 from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/syncretization
 
[3] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/syncretize
 
[4] Billy Ristuccia translated for the first time the table of contents of “Shiatsu Ho”, published by Tamai Tenpeki in 1939. You can find this translation on his website following this link: https://www.yotsumedojo.com/shiatsu-ho/
 
[5] Dubitsky, Carl, “Bodywork Shiatsu – Bringing the Art of Finger Pressure To the Massage Table”, Healing Arts Press, 1997, page 5. 
 
[6] Lei, Xianglin, author. Neither donkey nor horse: medicine in the struggle over China’s modernity / Sean Hsiang-lin Lei. (Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University) pp 141-62.
 
[7] Mould, Tom. “The Paradox of Traditionalization: Negotiating the Past in Choctaw Prophetic Discourse.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 42, no. 3, 2005, pp. 255–94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814917. Accessed 22 May 2023.
 
Top image: personal archive.
 
Second image: Tamai Tenpeki in his 1939 book, Shiatsu Ho.
 
Third image: Tokujiro Namikoshi, Wikicommons.
 
Fourth image: collage of images with Shizuto Masunaga and his teachings. Sources unclear for now, I would appreciate if you could provide with specific credits that need to be given.
 
Fifth image: Johny Gios, Unsplash.
 
If you consider that I left out any source that needs to be credited for any part of the content of this post, please, fill the contact form or leave a comment below. Thank you!
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Please, let me know what you think about my proposal for the history of Shiatsu. I appreciate positive and negative constructive feedback. Got questions? Leave them in a comment below? Thank you!

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