A Brief History of Shiatsu

“Concentration from hara and relaxation of the whole body is natural.
All Japanese culture is based on this principle.
If you tighten your shoulders or extremeties, your movement becomes clumsy and awkward.
Training in the arts is simply how to eliminate this distorted tension.
When your movement starts flowing naturally, without any tension, real beauty comes out.”
— Shizuto Masunaga

Cultural Roots

Shiatsu originated in traditional Japanese medicine, culture and philosophy. Through periods of Japan's history, manual therapies played a significant role in medical practice. Japanese medicine, like most Eastern philosophies,  emphasised the importance of preventative medicine. In this model, doctors were paid when their patients maintained good health, rather than at times of ill health, reflecting a medical culture centred around a holistic approach to health.

Right at the heart of Japanese culture, identity and health, is the concept and experience of moving from the 'hara'.

Anatomically the hara corresponds to the abdominal area of the body, and embodies the centre of a persons being. In a literal sense as the centre of gravity and where movements of the body originate. Though the significance of 'being in your hara' goes far deeper than this.

The hara as someone's true centre, embodies an individuals whole sense of themselves, their integrity as a human being, and the fundamental relationship with oneself and the world outside. It was through bringing this depth of understanding into medicine that made manual therapies so effective in maintaining good health. Entering into medical treatment in this way with a doctor depended on a relationship rooted in mutual trust, respect and honour. Further essential ingredients for bringing a true state of health and well-being.

Demise & Resurgence

Following early European influences into Japan, Western medical practices were introduced, bringing with them very different philosophy, understanding, and regulations. The traditional practices began to diminish, and later in the aftermath of the second world war, the allied controlled government banned all traditional and unlicensed medical practices in Japan.

During the periods of new regulation and control, traditional methods continued to be practised and passed on. Those without a proper licence simply adopted a new name for their practice and tried to carry on. One such name that appeared was Shiatsu, which literally translates as "finger pressure".

This term allowed practitioners to identify with manual therapy in a broad sense, but avoided being defined to narrowly, thus avoiding regulatory problems and allowing the more subtle and traditional aspects of the art to continue with less external interference. Later on however, post war government ministers challenged this, requiring that practitioners of 'Shiatsu' be able to define themselves as being different to other methods of massage which were licensed, in order to continue practising.

A new beginning

Having being given an eight year period to present evidence to the government, a team of experienced Shiatsu practitioners and medical experts assembled to gather research on Shiatsu. This was successful, and Shiatsu was recognised in it's own right as being distinct from other forms of manual therapy on medical terms.

Shizuto Masunaga

Shizuto Masunaga

For some of the team, this was only the beginning. The initial period of research presented an opportunity to delve much deeper into the art of Shiatsu, and reform it altogether as a medical practice. One such man was Shizuto Masunaga, a psychology professor at Tokyo university.

Masunaga dedicated the rest of his life to developing and reforming Shiatsu. He combined his knowledge and training in humanistic psychology, with his experience as a Shiatsu practitioner, and returned to the traditional, medical and spiritual understandings from the ancient texts of Chinese Medicine, Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Combining together these various aspects of modern western knowledge in physiology and psychology, Oriental philosophical roots, and the traditional art of hands on healing techniques; a distinct and fresh approach was formed, Zen Shiatsu.

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