A Shiatsu Story

Tokujiro Namikoshi Remembered

By Kensen Saito

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2001.

The passing of an influential person, like Tokujiro Namikoshi, often demands a retrospective of the contributions they made to society and the positive changes they helped to implement. His death on September 25, 2000, at the age of 94, cast a formidable shadow on Japanese bodywork. Namikoshi was instrumental in the development and proliferation of Shiatsu, the Japanese technique of thumb and palm pressure on a pattern of certain points over the body to relieve pain, promote relaxation and stimulate blood and lymphatic flow. Namikoshi’s self-created technique, now a requirement for massage certification in Japan, involves a thorough whole-body treatment, emphasizing neuro-muscular points. It requires an extensive knowledge of the musculo-skeletal structure and the nervous system. Though Namikoshi was not the founder of Shiatsu, he was its most recognized practitioner, responsible for its growth and worldwide acceptance. In his lifetime, he left an indelible mark on many clients and pushed the bounds of bodywork a bit farther. Massage & Bodywork was grateful to speak to one of Tokujiro Namikoshi’s students and friends about the Sensei’s life. Following is an article written by Kensen Saito, director of the Shiatsu Academy of Tokyo (Toronto), succeeded by an interview (sidebar) conducted on Jan. 19, 2001.

In 1905, Tokujiro Namikoshi was born into a family of four children. His father owned an umbrella business on Shikoku Island in the southern part of Japan. One year, the weather was so rainy and wet the glue would not dry on the umbrellas in time to meet the deadline for large orders from China, forcing his father into bankruptcy. His father decided to restart his life, and the family moved to Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island. It was a long, tough trip through extremely cold, harsh weather. When the family reached their destination, they found only a hut with no heat or running water. The family settled in as best they could in the stressful circumstances. But, soon Tokujiro Sensei’s mother began suffering terrible aches and pains in her joints. She had developed rheumatoid arthritis.

Because they had moved to such a small village, into such a primitive area, there was no doctor. Nothing could be done, so the children took turns rubbing her painful joints in an effort to help. Their mother said Tokujiro’s hands were the best at relieving her pains, thus, he took on the job as her physical therapist, while his brothers and sisters divided up their mother’s chores, like cooking and cleaning. Tokujiro’s mother confided in him that it felt better when he pressed on her body, rather than stroking or rubbing. He soon discovered a point that was very cold and stiff to his touch. He spent time and effort pressing on this point. His mother said this eased her pain. He pressed here daily, and the more this hard spot softened under his finger pressure, the more pain was relieved and the faster his mother recovered.

Eventually, with the help of Tokujiro’s treatment, his mother’s rheumatoid arthritis disappeared.

Young Healer

In his small village, the message spread quickly that Tokujiro was gifted. When his school principal’s wife, who had recently given birth, found she was unable to produce milk to nurse her baby, the principal asked Tokujiro to help. Again, he used his pressure technique and the woman was able to freely produce milk for her child. Afterward, during a special assembly at the school, the principal spoke about the wonderful job Tokujiro had done in helping his mother and the principal’s family. At that moment, Tokujiro decided he would spend his life using the pressure technique to help people.

A Buddhist monk living in the village soon became aware of Tokujiro’s deeds, and after meeting him, said he was the reincarnation of a high-ranking Buddhist monk who healed many people. He began to take Tokujiro on his rounds to visit villagers who were having problems with aches and pains. Tokujiro used his pressing technique and natural skill at locating and working out stiff points.

When Tokujiro was in his late teens, the monk went with him to the nearest city, where they planned to have him try his pressing technique on city dwellers. They were soon arrested by police for practicing without a license. They stayed overnight in jail, then returned to their own village. Tokujiro told his family about the experience. His older brother suggested he go to Tokyo and get a license to use his technique. He decided his brother’s advice was sound.

In those days, there were only two kinds of natural therapy in Japan – a Western-style (Swedish) massage and an ancient Chinese (acupressure) massage technique called “Anma.” Tokujiro studied Anma under an expert and earned his license. He then returned to Hokkaido and opened his first clinic, offering neither Anma, nor massage, but the pressing technique he had developed by himself.

As he practiced in his own way, he wondered what he should call his method. He saw the word “Shiatsu” in a magazine article, referring to “finger pressure.” He liked it, although he was mostly using his thumbs for pressure at the time. (In Japan, the thumbs are called “fingers” just the same. Thus, the word Shiatsu described very well what he was doing.)

As he practiced, Tokujiro studied anatomy and developed a scientific theory which explains Shiatsu. He learned that when he pressed certain points on his mother’s body, it was like giving her natural cortisone shots, because he was stimulating her adrenal glands. The more he studied and thought about it, the more Tokujiro came to realize the human body has all the chemicals needed to heal itself. Under stress, the body is put into a state of imbalance, a time when it does not produce the right kind and amount of chemicals. Instead, it can produce destructive substances. Shiatsu can reduce the effects of stress on the body and nudge it back toward a healthy state of balance. He felt modern society depended too much on drugs and surgery. It is possible through Shiatsu for a person to develop tremendous health and strength. Shiatsu stimulates a person’s inner healing power so the body can work to heal itself. It is like a switch by which the body’s healing power is turned on. Tokujiro took the following words as a slogan: “The heart of Shiatsu is a mother’s love.” This sets out the importance of the caring, healing attitude of the person who performs Shiatsu on someone else.

Valuable Thumbs

When Tokujiro was in his mid-20s, practicing at his Sapporo clinic, a famous philosopher named Ishimaru Gohei came to Hokkaido by train one day to deliver a lecture to a sold-out audience of 2,000 people – an event sponsored by the local newspaper. Gohei was in a weakened condition and would deliver his lecture sitting down, instead of standing. When he arrived at the Sapporo railway station, he collapsed on the platform. His assistant had to help him to the inn and a doctor was called. The doctor recommended he cancel his speech that evening. The sponsors from the newspaper were in panic, but one writer had heard of Tokujiro’s reputation, so they called on him to help.

Tokujiro came to the inn where the philosopher was staying and did Shiatsu on him until he appeared to be much better. On that evening, instead of canceling, Gohei presented a two-hour speech, standing up. He was amazed at his heightened physical strength and well-being after Tokujiro’s treatment. Gohei awarded Tokujiro $10,000 in Jomen yen, a fortune at the time. He also told him, “Your hands are very precious. I want to insure your thumbs.”

Gohei insured Tokujiro’s thumbs for $100,000 yen ($10 million today). This was a tremendous amount of insurance. In those days in Japan, the highest amount of disability insurance was carried by a famous baseball pitcher, Miyataka, who had his right arm insured for $20,000 yen. Gohei urged Tokujiro to practice Shiatsu in Tokyo, where a large number of people could benefit from it. By that time, Tokujiro Sensei was married and had children, but he took the philosopher’s advice. He left his Hokkaido clinic and moved his family to Tokyo. Gohei introduced him to many important people, but Shiatsu was so new and unknown, it took many years before he successfully established his expanded practice.

In 1940, he founded his school (Japan Shiatsu Institute) and began to train Shiatsu practitioners. At this time, he made a concerted effort to distance his techniques from Anma. He chose to describe the processes of his work using Western scientific medical terms instead of traditional Oriental medical references. Eventually, the practitioners got together and approached the government, asking for legal recognition of Shiatsu, apart from Anma. However, after World-War II, U.S. General Douglas McArthur directed the Japanese Health Ministry during post-war reconstruction (at the time allied forces controlled many aspects of Japanese life). There were more than 300 unregulated therapies in Japan, and McArthur ordered all to be researched to document which ones had scientific proof of merit and which did not. At the end of eight years, the universities reported back and Shiatsu was the only therapeutic practice that received scientific approval. In 1955, the Japanese Health Ministry legally recognized Shiatsu and it became a licensed therapy. The school became registered under the name Japan Shiatsu School.

The Power of Friendship

Tokujiro Sensei was not a big person but his thumbs were unusually large – almost twice the size of a person with normal hands. He always said the thumbs are very important and that touch is one of the crucial elements that makes Shiatsu so powerful. From my own experience with thousands of Shiatsu patients over the years, I know this is true.

Tokujiro was often pictured with a smile on his face and with his thumbs up. Perhaps that mentality to laugh and keep a positive attitude was the secret to a long and productive life. Though our loss is big, Tokujiro Sensei’s spirit is here; it’s all over.