Beginning in 1603, a new shogunate came to power and the Edo government was formed, thus beginning a period of economic growth, strict social policies, and isolation from foreign exchange for almost 300 years therefore allowing for a style of Japanese acupuncture to form.
-Akiko Kobayashi et al., in History and Progress of Japanese Acupuncture
Founders note: This is the first of a series of posts by recent NCNM graduate, Ben Milosch. We hope you enjoy it!
In 404 CE, the first foreign medicine was imported into Japan from Korea, which has been deduced as being mostly herbal in nature. During this time, waves of migration from the Korean peninsula brought Chinese technology and writings to the island nation. It was through these transplants that the native Japanese learned of Chinese medicine and acupuncture. As passageways between China and Japan became more open, the first formal introduction of acupuncture in Japan occurred in 562 by a Chinese monk name Zhi Cong. He made the trek across the Sea of China east and brought with him medical treatises on herbal medicine and acupuncture meridians including the Mingtang tu, also known as the Illustrated Manual of Channels, Collaterals, and Acupuncture Points.
The island nation quickly picked up the medicine. However, it’s development was quite different from mainland China. In Japan, herbal medicine and acupuncture grew separately, each developing new tools, methods, and styles along with a new language.
In the 7th century, Japan sent ambassadors and students to the courts of the Sui and Tang Dynasties to study the different facets of Chinese culture, including Chinese medicine.
As a result of these explorations, in 701 the Japanese govern set up a legislative and medical system mirroring that of the one in Tang, China. During the Heian period (794-1192), exchange with the Tang dynasty was initiated. Aristocrats, doctors, and well-educated people traveled to China bringing high-grade information and the most current medical texts back to Japan for study.
Medical schools were established with a curriculum based on the classical texts of the Huangdi neijing and the Jiayi jing. The Jiayi jing or The ABC Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion was a 12-volume set written by Huang Fu Mi in the 2nd century. The first text which is devoted entirely to the study of acupuncture and moxibustion, the Jiayi jing also includes charts and graphs of acupuncture meridians.
The detailed practical applications of the moxibusiton and acupuncture of the Jiayi jing was a 6-year study. Students also studied the acupuncture and moxibustion techniques outlined in the Lingshu. The rigorous medical system was controlled by the Japanese government and administered by the nobility until the end of the 12th century.
Control of the Japanese government was seized by the samurai class in the early 13th century with the capitol city shifting from Kyoto to Kamakura. Nonetheless, the medical system remained unchanged. After the rise of the samurai class, progression of acupuncture and moxibustion in Japan entered a slow decline. Little information exists about the techniques that were developed during this time.
In the Azuchimomoyama period (1573-1600), there was a rise of ryu-ha or private schools being established by Japanese citizens who studied in China and then returned to Japan, leading to the development of new styles and skills of acupuncture treatment. The earliest origins of traditional Japanese acupuncture and special acupuncture skills unique to this island nation emerged from these ryu-ha. Each school kept its own techniques secret from all the others and one paid for learning a technique. Once mastered one then paid for another.
One of the most famous of these schools was opened by Isai Misono, who devised a new technique of acupuncture, now referred to as Mubun-style. A non-insertive needle was gently tapped over points on the abdomen. The needles were made of gold and silver, instead of iron, and were given light stimulation, a hallmark of Japanese acupuncture. During this period of time the importance of palpating the abdomen for diagnosis was emphasized and is still important in today’s Japanese acupuncture treatments.
As quoted above, beginning in 1603, a new shogunate, the Tokugawa, came to power and the Edo government was formed thus beginning a period of economic growth, strict social policies, and isolation from foreign exchange for almost 300 year, allowing for a style of Japanese acupuncture to form. During this period, a legendary acupuncturist changed the course of acupuncture history in Japan during the mid 17th century. Blinded as a small child as the result of contracting chickenpox, Waichi Sugiyama relinquished his samurai status and began the study of acupuncture. Sugiyama’s abilities were renowned throughout Japan, and it is said that through his prayers to Benten (also known as Benzaiten), the goddess of everything that flows, he was rewarded with the gift of superior acupuncture techniques.
Benten, Goddess of Everything that Flows
He was able to condense the massive system of Chinese acupuncture into a summary of concepts that were easily understandable in Japan with his own simplified and clarified techniques. The most famous of his innovations was the introduction of the use of the shinkan, or guide tube. The use of guide tubes helps to reduce the pain of needle insertion by distracting the bodies wei qi defense system and allows for the insertion of ultra-thin needles common to most Japanese acupuncturists.
In 1868, the samurai-based government of the Edo period collapsed and the new Meiji government took over. The Emperor Meiji was eager to rapidly accept Western culture, thus enabling Japan’s ability too gain a good position in the world. As a result, traditional Japanese culture was suppressed and thought of as out of fashion along with traditional Japanese medicine, which included acupuncture as antiquated and unnecessary.
One hundred years later, China would go through a similar process during the Cultural Revolution, establishing Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM. In both cases, the decision was made to accept Western medicine and establish a system of examination for qualifying people to practice, which is the root of the current state examination that provides the license to practice medicine. After being so severely restricted by the government and completely excluded from mainstream medicine, acupuncture in Japan took close to a half a century to recover following the Meiji government.
Part 2 will be coming soon!