The Japanese Art of Shiatsu

‘By the way, what is shiatsu? And where does it come from?’ I have been asked that question sometimes…

The question is legitimate and simple. I am afraid there is no simple and quick answer. It’s impossible to give a thorough answer in just seconds.

Maybe this is Karma. Master Ohashi told me once: the people you have to welcome in your practice room are lawyers, doctors, teachers… great intellectuals who need a lot of explanations.

My pleasure, Master, but a shiatsu session is no place for long talks. It’s a rare opportunity in the modern world to switch off Radio Brain, let the feeling arise, allow the body to regain its central place.

This goes both ways. I sometimes ask the question: ‘Have you already practiced shiatsu? Do you know what it is?’ I never get a clear answer either. It seems obvious that some people expect oil massage, want to undress, or have already practiced something called “shiatsu” in a holiday resort. Some even don’t know at all what it is about, they just follow a recommendation. Wonderful trust, in fact, springing into the unknown!

In both cases, being asked or asking, I won’t attempt a definition in the practice room, I just explain how we are going to process.

So as nobody seems to know really and as we don’t have time during a shiatsu session, let’s try to get our thoughts together in this article.

Practice first

On one morning a man came for his appointment with his son. To my surprise he showed his son the futon, telling him it to lie down and that it would do him good. I was reluctant, because it is always better when the decision is taken by the person self.  So Son (dragging his feet) laid down, with no idea of what would happen to him. We had a session, he asked me some questions. I heard after that that he came home and went to run, what he hadn’t been able to do for some time, because of asthma and joints problems. And during several days, he praised shiatsu to his friends, asking why it wasn’t better known and recognized.

Indeed: you don’t have to know what it is or to believe in anything to feel the effect. Maybe it’s even better to keep it so. Shiatsu is practice in the first place. Feeling it says more than telling about it.

Nevertheless, we Westerners like to understand and put words where in fact none are needed. So let’s attempt a definition anyway.

 

Want to understand the meaning? Look at the Kanji’s.

When we want to understand concepts originating in the Far East, be it Chinese or Japanese, there is one simple way to get to the core of the meaning: analyze the Kanji’s (Japanese name for characters).

Kanji’s are in fact drawings that have gone through thousands of years of evolution and daily use. They show the meaning. Eastern people SEE what it means, they don’t put meaningless syllables together like we do.  No matter how it is pronounced, you just have to look at them to understand the meaning. Let’s try this for the two kanji’s meaning shiatsu, once put together.

So we have  SHI 指, commonly translated by ‘finger’. And then ATSU 圧, commonly translated by  ‘pressure’. Shiatsu = finger pressure.

Let’s go deeper.

Looking at Shi, you can divide it into a left and a right part. The left part derives from the kanji for ‘hand’ and the right part has the meaning of ‘intention’. A finger is a hand with an intention. You always use your fingers for something. Notice they didn’t use the kanji for ‘thumb’, so we use all our fingers to practice.

Looking at ‘atsu’ you can divide it in two parts as well, the upper part meaning ‘cliff’ and the enclosed part being the symbol for earth. This refers to a funeral mount or a standing stone under a cliff.

So we have two whirlpools. Shi goes down from heaven to earth (Yang, pressure), atsu goes up from earth to heaven (Yin, response). Looking at the kanji’s enables us to see how energy is working both ways.

Keeping to that minimal analysis, shiatsu means something like « the intention of fingers pressing down creates a response coming from (the earth) below’.

Look for origins and influences

Kanji’s for shiatsu are very ancient, like its roots, although the name ‘shiatsu’ hasn’t even existed for 100 year. It appeared in the 30’s.

Looking for the roots, we can find:

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), meridians, points, diagnosis, nature and movements of energy…
  • Taoism (Yin/Yang and 5 elements)
  • Shintoism (holistic view, « Shin »aspects, importance of nature, Kotodama’s)
  • Buddhism (compassion, vacuity, (non-)intention, interrelation…)
  • Cosmology (place of Mankind in the Universe)
  • Massage practices (Anma, Ampuku, Do In…)
  • Dietetics (nature of food)
  • Martial arts (work with hara, movements…)
  • And even Western influences, as western medicine was already spreading in Japan at the time when the word « shiatsu » appeared.

Shiatsu implies therefore those various influences at different degrees and other not so clear influences. Mr Masunaga himself in his book « Shiatsu and Easter Medicine » confesses his inability to 

define exactly the origins of shiatsu, which appeared during his lifetime, though. There were in Japan at the time so many initiatives and research of all kind…

During that short time lapse of about 100 years several schools were created and developed, first in Japan, then in other countries. Masters created and taught their own style. Japanese and Western pupils developed an understanding and their own practice of shiatsu. One might say there are many ways and as many kinds of shiatsu as there are practicioners.

When being asked whether I had to study a lot to practice shiatsu, I use to answer that its roots go back to several thousands of years and that it is therefore impossible even to imagine one can understand everything during just one lifetime.

So, how can you make sure you receive a good shiatsu?  Just like good wine is wine you like to drink, good shiatsu is when you feel great.

Numerous aspects

As much for etymology and origins. So as you can imagine, definition of what it is and what it isn’t will be complicated.

Let’s have a go:

  • It is not massage, as we press with the fingers. We can sometimes rub, warm up, stretch some parts of the body, but we don’t work on muscles. We don’t use oil. And we keep our clothes on.
  • It’s not just a technique. Of course we have to learn a demanding technique, but there is more to that. It’s not just the mechanical repetition of gestures, there is intuition of what to do. Like cooking: if we just put the ingredients together, the dish will not be tasty. You need the personal touch of the cook.
  • It’s not just wellness. Of course shiatsu works well on the parasympathetic system, which induces deep relaxation. But it helps to release lots of problems, blocks, ailments. And it works very well on prevention.
  • On the other way, it’s not just therapeutic. You don’t need to have a problem to receive shiatsu. Keeping healthy is the first idea.
  • It’s not only body practice. The entrance gate is the body, but in the East they don’t separate it from other energy levels. Lots of points point to psychological, emotional, spiritual levels…
  • It’s energetics, but at the same time we touch and press in a very concrete way, although shiatsu doesn’t interfere with physical therapies, like physiotherapy or osteopathy for instance.
  • It’s an art of living, but more than that. Practicing shiatsu regularly makes lots of changes possible in life, after a while. The body has its say, and listening to the body makes some behaviours uncomfortable, like eating badly, living a stressing life, procrastinating, surrendering to emotions or life circumstances, living in unhealthy conditions…

So shiatsu is not those aspects separately, it is all those aspects together, and I am quite sure the list is not exhaustive.

Looking back at the innocent question in the practice room ‘what is shiatsu, by the way?’, we will have to KISS (keep it simple and stupid). Less is more.

I would finally choose to say it in two words, keeping in mind shiatsu is practice in the first place.

Shiatsu is art

‘Art’ implies technique, feeling and achievement. We can see, hear, feel the result with our senses. There is an objective piece of work and a subjective appreciation, that will depend from person to person. There is communication between the artist and the “public”.  Art speaks to us at several levels. It addresses our senses, emotions, intellect and intuition. It is moving and can create action or reaction. Likewise, Shiatsu gives an impulse to the body, starting a process of self-healing, (re-)balancing, transformation / transmutation.

Speaking of art about The East refers undoubtedly to martial arts, which is not a bad analogy.

All the Japanese arts ending with the suffix DO (aikido, judo, kendo, kyudo, chado, shôdo…), DO meaning the Way, imply a demanding technique, a personal quest, work on yourself, self control, mastery, hara development… They are very physical and lead to worldly and spiritual realization. Lots of martial arts include by the way health techniques.

Some speak of Shiatsudo,  ‘the way of finger pressure’. Praticioner and receiver walk together on the Do – Way, and shiatsu is support on the way.

That one word ‘art’ is thereby very convenient, with all its nuances and meanings. Lots of Japanese arts are about sobriety, minimalism. They suggest more than they explain. Suppose there is a line and you don’t go over the threshold, you  « stay on this side », seeing all aspects but not choosing one above another. Saying ‘art’, speaking of Shiatsu, is ‘staying on this side of the line’.

But when we try explaining it to our receivers, we will have to cross the line anyway and say something more, knowing all it can imply. Shiatsu is art. And art is art of something. Everybody will fill in the blanks. Art of wellness, of touch, of health, of care, of life energy, of living and many other things. As I said, everybody is somewhere on the way, and depending on that, the practicioner will favour some aspects… and these aspects interact with the personal – conscious or unconscious – quest of the receivers. It is said that we attract people we can help at this very moment.

That allows us to stay humble. Nobody holds the truth. Nobody has the right to criticize other colleagues or schools, because they practice in a different way. Diversity is life. Sol lucet omnibus.

Speaking about humility… this is also true in the practice room. Is the shiatsu practicioner an artist? Yes indeed, because ‘the authentic artist must learn to fade in front of Art’, as Marc Halévy tells us in his book   ‘Les mensonges des Lumières’, adding ‘the œuvre can only be sublime through the sacrifice of ego’.  My answer therefore, when a receiver says « YOU did me so much good », is: ‘Oh, but, now you know, shiatsu is fantastic’.

Shiatsu is Japanese art

If we want to say it in two words, we still need a second one and to ‘art’ I would add ‘Japanese’.

Why insist on that? Because one tends to forget the Japanese character of shiatsu, which implies lots of things.

Even those who have spent many years in Japan will tell you it is very difficult to get into it. Japanese people live on an island and have a strong identity. They make a very clear difference between them and foreigners, between inside and outside (nai and gai).

As Westerners, we are not them (and will never be). « Gaijin », foreigners, mean the people from outside, i.e. the non Japanese. And as friendly, polite and welcoming as they can be, we will never become Japanese. It is a border that can never be crossed. And so there are things that will never be shown or explained to us. It’s important to keep that in mind.

At the same time, there are real openings. So many Japanese came to the West after World War II to teach their art (martial art, meditation…). Shiatsu belongs to that movement. Increased americanization of Japan in the second half of the 20th century might have been a trigger. Japanese people became conscious of the danger of losing many traditional aspects of their culture and they came to the West to preserve them.

So it’s up to us to let these seeds grow and try to integrate Japanese aspects into our practice, according to our understanding and our affinities. This means much more than the interior decoration of the practice room. We can for instance practice another Japanese discipline to enrich our practice of shiatsu. Or learn Japanese culture. Or go to Japan to see the way it works there.

Without ever becoming a Japanese we can adapt and adopt some obvious behaviours.

Like, for instance:

  • Etiquette : the practice room is a dojo. You take your shoes off, it’s clean, welcoming, with a quiet energy…
  • Sincerity: practice with a sincere heart. « Heaven is touched by sincere men ».
  • Quality requirements: being present at every moment, listening, serving…
  • Cheerful welcome: Japanese love laughing, even if we don’t get that at first sight.
  • Open-mindedness and curiosity: shiatsu is the synthesis of lots of influences and that synthesis has not been completed yet.
  • Sobriety and efficiency: no nonsense. It’s not necessary to comment a lot, just practice.
  • Respect, being non-invasive: the “ma”
  • Simplicity: live in a simple way and act accordingly.

There are also key concepts of Japanese culture, that can help us for our practice, like, for instance:

  • Gambari: being patient and determined leads to achievements
  • Iitoko-Dori: adopting elements from foreign cultures, making a synthesis of our own
  • Kisetsu: have a sense of seasons, live according to natural ambient energy
  • Wabi sabi: simplicity and elegance, aesthetics of gesture, in life…
  • Hollow centre and idea of vacuity: doing ‘nothing’ and being ‘absent’ are essential

In the Western world we tend to forget the cultural context of the country that brought shiatsu to us. Even if shiatsu definitely seems to have a universal character and works very well with cultures which are very far from Japanese culture. Receivers coming to my practice room are from various nationalities, religions, cultural backgrounds… That has never been a problem. Practicing Japanese art works in the whole world.

We can sum it up with the analogy of the tree. There was in Japan that famous discussion about the purest belief, Shinto or Buddhism, the Honji Suijaku theory stating the Kami’s were manifestations of Buddhist deities and the Inverted Honji Suijaku with Jihen’s and then Yoshida Kanetomo’s root/trunk-branch/leaf-flower/fruit theory, saying that  Japan formed the root and trunk, China manifested the branches/leaves, and India opened the flower/fruit. Thus, Buddhism was the flower/fruit of all teachings, Confucianism was their branch/leaf, and Shintō their root.

Same with Shiatsu. All those aspects go together very well, but if we want to put some structure in it, we might say:

  • The roots are Japanese (i.e. Chinese inspiration, Japanese customization)
  • The trunk is the shiatsu practicioner, with knowledge and practice
  • The leaves are the universality and numerous uses of shiatsu

As a conclusion…

By the way, what is Shiatsu? Japanese art.

We have a definition, keeping in mind all it implies.

We can keep thinking and theorizing about it… world without end. Nice thing to do, once in a while, when we have nothing else to do. That’s the nature of our mind.

But practice comes first. I had the opportunity to study shiatsu with a Japanese, Kawada Sensei. Explanations didn’t matter so much. He always asked: ‘Do you feel’? Feeling. That’s all about it.

Art is practice in the first place. Shiatsu works and brings changes. The person going out is no more the same as the one who came in. You can read it on the face, in the eyes… Radiating Shin.

I am happy to walk on the way of that beautiful art of Shiatsu.