If there’s anything we’ve learned from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that our health is always our most important resource. While Western medicine and allopathic techniques have become the most common way to treat ailments in Japan, there is also still a large market for “Oriental medicine”.

We will explain the most popular alternative treatment, traditional Japanese medicine: Kampo, Acupuncture, Shiatsu, Seitai.

What is the difference between Western medicine and Oriental medicine?

Most people only think about Oriental medicine as part of Chinese culture.  However, there are several treatment techniques that may have originated with Chinese culture but have developed their own characteristics unique to Japan.

Japanese alternative therapy practice differs from Western, allopathic medicine the same way Chinese medicine does. While allopathic medicine looks at ailments in isolation, traditional Japanese medicine uses a holistic view of the body to correct an imbalance of humor. This can be done with herbs, topical treatments, and massage therapies.

What is the most popular alternative medicine in Japan?

Alternative medicines’ popularity varies by population demographic and location, but the most popular by far is acupuncture.

Combined with Japanese herbal medicine, or Kampo, acupuncture in Japan can include smoking herbs (moksha), or just tiny needles (hari).

Kampo herbal medicine treatment

Traditional Japanese Medicine - Kampo herbal medicine treatment

Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

What is Japanese Kampo medicine?

Kampo by itself can be ground into powders or tea blends, and are even sometimes prescribed by allopathic doctors in tandem with western medication.

Kampo encompasses almost all herbal treatments, although it’s not purely botanical. Animal bones, herbs, and minerals are all mixed together to create Kampo treatments.

Kampo is almost always accompanied by a bitter, acrid taste when taken directly. This is the most common alternative Japanese medicine practice, and indeed some doctors fail to see it as an alternative at all.

According to a 2011 survey by the Japan Kampo Medicines Manufacturers Association, 52% of Japanese medical doctors prescribed Kampo formulations based on Western medicine. And a further 32% on Western medicine using Kampo diagnostic techniques.


What is Kampo used for?

Most foreigners come into contact with Kampo for the first time in the form of little packets. Allopathic doctors in Japan prescribe these little packets for everything from flu symptoms to preventative care. These granulated formulas are made in single-dose foil packets, and dissolve easily in water or poured directly on the tongue.

Kampo is taken by both the young and the old, but your little one might need something sweet afterward to entice them once they’ve had their first taste of Kampo.

Traditional Japanese Therapy

まぽ (S-cait)さんによる写真ACからの写真

The other common use of Kampo is in moxibustion, a series of controlled burns on the same points along the body as acupuncture. The Moksha technique is actually named for the Chinese word for mugwort, known in Japan as yomogi. Found in everything from mochi to cheese, yomogi is an essential herb and folk remedy in Japanese culture and food.

Burning yomogi in combination with other herbs is said to detoxify the blood and improve overall circulation. While it may seem frightening to see a smoking bundle of herbs coming at you, most of the time the flame will never actually touch your skin.

Most of the time, moxibustion is carried out by the same practitioners who do hari, or acupuncture.

Acupuncture – Japanese needle therapy

Traditional Japanese Therapy-Japanese needle therapy

Photo by acworks on Photo AC

How does Japanese acupuncture work?

Japanese acupuncture is based on ancient Chinese body topography in which different points on your body can be adjusted to cure different ailments.

Japanese style acupuncture is generally considered to be more pleasant than most traditional Chinese acupuncture as well, with smaller needles that don’t go nearly as deep. Used in combination with Moksha, the more delicate needles can serve as a channel for the healing properties of the herbs.

Hari is considered to be a therapeutic practice, just like physical therapy or massage therapists. This means that it’s held to strict standards, requiring a national certification to practice. Many schools for the blind originally offered up to PhDs in Acupuncture, and that spirit of dedication to the craft remains today. There are many different types of acupuncture, all for different benefits.

Japanese acupuncture benefits

Alternative Japanese Therapy-Japanese acupuncture benefits

Photo by まぽ (S-cait) on Photo AC

Cosmetic acupuncture has become one of the most popular forms the ancient medicine takes in modern-day Japan. Popular with celebrities in Hollywood and around the world, acu-face-lifts and wrinkle-reducing treatments are now becoming widespread among acupuncturists and estheticians.

There are also many needling techniques to help those struggling with weight loss to reduce appetite and increase circulation and metabolism. Moreover, even some to help with fertility and virility.

Almost all acupuncture types will use long thin needles except for pediatric acupuncture, which often uses little rollers or other multiple shallow needle points made to be more gentle for the baby’s skin.

Shiatsu – Japanese massage therapy

Shiatsu is perhaps one of the most recognized names in alternative medicine in Japan, though it has become a moniker for many forms of Japanese massage.

The Japanese massage Shiatsu in its original form uses the same topography of energy flow as things like Acupuncture, Qi Gong, and Moxibustion, but uses broad, flat hands to apply pressure as the primary actor on those energies.

The word Shiatsu itself means, “finger pressure”, and like Qi Gong Shiatsu massage involves taking the healing energy from the practitioners and into the bodies of their patients.

Seitai – Japanese chiropractic

Alternative Japanese Therapy- Seitai- Japanese chiropractic


Last but certainly not least is the final category of alternative medicine in Japan, Seitai. These Japanese chiropractors are somewhat passe now but were an essential part of community care throughout the Showa and into the Heisei era.

These Japanese chiropractic clinics often were hubs of Japanese traditional medicine, with Kampo and Shiatsu treatments available in addition (and indeed, in congruence with) the chiropractic adjustment.

Traditional Seitai differs greatly from the Western chiropractor. Those used to techniques from the USA or Europe may be surprised at the gentle touch along the spine, but don’t let that fool you: truly experienced Seitai practitioners are an exceptional health resource.

When I myself had a sudden health problem, my father trucked me across Tokyo. Because he only trusted one Seitai, and though I made no sudden movements nor felt anything pop satisfyingly into place, I left walking on absolute clouds.

Japanese Alternative/Traditional Medicine and Therapy

Photo by acworks on Photo AC

I know from experience that trying these new, non-allopathic medicines can be a bit frightening for expatriates and foreign residents. We by no means would recommend any treatments without consultation from your doctor.

That being said, however, giving yourself other ways to relax and rebalance your natural energy can be vital in Japan’s never-ending rat race. We wish you good luck and good health in the coming months!

NOTE: The above article is simply an explanation of methods and not meant as medical advice or a treatment guide. Please talk to your doctor before making any changes to your health regimen.

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