This article was inspired by my work with Kishi on our book, Sei-ki: Life in Resonance, The Secret Art of Shiatsu 2011 Singing Dragon.  Kishi worked closely with Masunaga for 10 years before developing his own approach.  While writing the book he looked back with renewed interest at those years with his teacher, recalling the man and reading his work, some of which he had rescued from a rubbish bin where they languished after Masunaga’s resignation from The Japan Shiatsu College in 1968.  These are not his words or thoughts but are informed by our many conversations.

Meridians were not originally part of Shiatsu; they were introduced by Masunaga sensei for about 10 years as he experimented with different ways of explaining the work for the purpose of teaching.  They are not mentioned in Japan’s official Shiatsu training which follows Namikoshi’s original model.  By defining  Shiatsu in major part as ‘meridian work’, I wonder if we are limiting it unhelpfully and sticking with a format that was never intended to carry the practise as it does now?The term, shiatsu, started out at the beginning of the 20th century as a fairly loose umbrella for a variety of touch therapies and was only defined officially in Japan during the 1940s and ‘50s.  This move was prompted by the temporary American administration (1945-1952) threatening to regulate ‘traditional’[1] therapies in ways that did not serve the infant profession.  Those at the forefront of Shiatsu wanted to assert its difference from other methods and they, along with other professional bodies, were granted eight years to account for its unique efficacy in scientific terms to establish a case for a named license.  The academics and practitioners who came together on this project embraced the challenge as part of a more widespread movement to revive Japanese culture or ‘Ki Culture’.  On the team were both pioneering practitioner, Tokujiro Namikoshi, and clinical psychologist and practitioner, Shizuto Masunaga.

Under instructions laid down by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, they established a scientific methodology and ran exhaustive trials on the relative effects of Shiatsu.  Research was conducted on the evidence-based medical model that had represented the gold standard since the official adoption of German medicine by the Japanese Government in the mid-19th century.  The resulting description was expounded in the language of anatomy and physiology.  In response to this thorough account, Shiatsu was awarded a named license and the official report established the foundations of Shiatsu training in Japan, giving impetus to a Golden Age that continued through to the late 1970s.

While Acupuncture and Kanpo herbal medicine had never really lost their statuses and could be studied at degree level, manual therapy, the third and historically key element of Japanese medicine, had never been on a university curriculum, subsisting at the fringes of medicine along with any number of folk methods.  In establishing a coherent scientific account, the researchers had taken an important step towards its accommodation within the fold of university-taught Eastern medicine; a goal finally achieved, briefly, by Masunaga when he was appointed Professor at the Institute of Oriental Medical Research at Kitazano University in Tokyo.  Sadly, he died soon afterwards and the position was not filled again.

The license was a mixed blessing however; in the course of research it had become plain that the scientific model was philosophically incompatible with the model of health on which Eastern medicine was based.  It was not going to be as simple as translating Shiatsu into another, comparable language.  Western narratives of health and help depend on assumptions about humanity, sickness and health into which Eastern philosophy and medicine cannot be forced.  While some practitioners were content with having achieved a status that enabled them to work unhindered by the authorities, Masunaga saw the group’s achievement as merely the start of explaining Shiatsu in terms that were faithful to Eastern philosophy and satisfied the demands of text based teaching.

Given his background in psychology, it was natural that he should consider this discipline early on as a structure through which to explain Shiatsu; and it has some merit.  The traces of this attempt remained in his work and were picked up readily by later Western interpreters who found it familiar and accessible.  But Masunaga quickly came up against its limitations and moved on to Chinese medicine as a potentially better fit.

It is worth noting that when the Japanese talk about Chinese medicine they do not exactly mean the medicine of China and they certainly do not mean Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a product of Maoist cultural revisionism.   Japan did borrow explicitly and extensively from its illustrious neighbour between the 7th and 17th centuries CE.  But what it took was re-moulded and re-formed to a Japanese sensibility.  The ‘Chinese’ medicine that held Masunaga’s interest for a decade was interpreted through a Japanese lens.  A Westerner going back to the Chinese texts will not see what he did.
Also, the classical Chinese medical texts were never intended to be either exhaustive or fixed.  They were written down as teaching aids in addition to the more important teaching that took place in close, personal, supervision.  While Masunaga did extensive research using the old charts and texts, his own meridian chart with its thick, vague, some would have it, inaccurate, lines, emphasises incompleteness and fluidity.  This is not the accident of a slap-dash artist and poor scholar.  The lines were not what mattered.  What mattered to Masunaga was meridian philosophy and not, as is so easy to assume in a more literalist culture, lines mapping some concrete reality.  Meridians, in fact, have no existence outside the skilled touch of the practitioner.  More than this, no map can ever represent the present moment of flux so will always only be a rough suggestion and snapshot of something past.

In his postgraduate institute, the Iokai, Masunaga did not teach meridians.  He taught feeling or sesshin, first and foremost.   His theory, and the connection he made between it and concrete manual practice was difficult.  Few of his disciples understood it, requiring as it did, a depth understanding of classical Eastern philosophy as well as great skill and experience in manual performance.  Masunaga, excelling in both, was a rare exception.

Although in his own time Masunaga was a figure of considerable standing within the wider world of traditional medicine, his path was by no means smooth.  He outraged his contemporaries by proposing Western psychology as a model for Eastern medicine, left his teaching post at Namikoshi’s Japan Shiatsu College indignant at the opposition some of his colleagues expressed to his unorthodox teaching and, in turning to Acupuncture theory for inspiration, found himself set against the Japanese Acupuncture Association in his interpretation of core principles.  Few really understood his work and his extensive publications have left barely a mark, though his influence and myth live on.  This is perhaps fuelled more by Youtube now, than anything he ever wrote or taught to his close disciples.

There is evidence in his later writing that Masunaga reached the limitations of meridian and Acupuncture theory for use in Shiatsu.  An indefatigable researcher, his ideas were moving closer to a Buddhist account that called for a language outside medicine and honoured the present moment.  Sadly this work was never completed and we cannot know for certain where he was heading.

One could ask what we can draw from this history.  One thing is certain: Western, Masunaga-style, Shiatsu has considerable investment in maintaining the meridian model as a teaching tool and has identified itself so closely with this system that is would now be quite radical to change it.  Even knowing this history, it would take courage and energy to rework Shiatsu, though it is clear that there are practitioners who understand its limitations and do interesting work in supplementing and developing it.

Knowing a little more about the history of Shiatsu in Japan can be useful to Western practitioners.  For instance, it is clear that claims that Shiatsu is either unscientific or needs to be made to fit with science miss the point for they use the wrong model.  Some understanding of the Eastern approach to health and well-being can give us a strong, alternative account into which Western medicine fits as a subset, rather than the other way around.  Conversely, the scientific research conducted by the Japanese licensing project is currently mostly lost to the West but could, in principle, provide the foundation for judicious use of scientific language in instances where this might be useful; thus employing the Buddhist principle of skilful means which advocates using any (ethical) means to get an important message across.

An intelligently led professional body could steer a creative path through the potential pitfalls and use the language of science strategically while fostering a more subtle, over-arching and informed profession that acknowledges the history of Shiatsu in its entirety.

Masunaga’s interest was not confined to Shiatsu but extended to a life philosophy that was utopian in seeking to re-locate an Eastern or Buddhist account of humanity at the heart of all aspects of life.  Many practitioners have found for themselves that meridians and TCM are fickle guides in real life and have sought other languages for their work, often pillaging from Reiki, Chi Gong and a host of New Age therapies and spiritualties or simply following their feeling and quietly dropping the formalities of school Shiatsu.  The proliferation of styles, all trying to fill gaps in theory and make a whole out of the scraps that have found their way to the West, speak volumes about the lack of a clear philosophical foundation.  It also speaks of a fantastic spirit of enquiry, enthusiasm and need for a more satisfying approach to health through human touch.

There is an argument for having the courage to resist definitions based on theory and technique in favour of repositioning Shiatsu as, first and foremost, a discipline that places personal development and authority over form and technique.  The imperative is to look with innocent eyes and touch with empty minds for the fleeting now.  Perhaps name what you find ‘meridians’ if it seems appropriate…or maybe be braver than that.

Alice Whieldon began her Shiatsu training in 1991 and met Kishi sensei in 1998.  She worked with him from that point, culminating in writing a book with him.  She practices Seiki and psychotherapy in London, leads Seiki workshops and is also a senior manager and tutor for the Open University in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.  See: for details of treatments.  If you find this article interesting and want to know more, it is recommended that you read: Seiki, Life in Resonance: The Secret Art of Shiatsu by Akinobu Kishi and Alice Whieldon

[1] ‘Traditional’ medicine is something of a problematic notion.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish what it actually refers to and more usually refers to a revival based on often political ideology.  This was clearly the case with the ‘traditional’ Japanese arts in the mid-20th century as the Japanese strove to re-establish national identity.