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History of Shiatsu Massage

By Judy Bruen ; Updated July 18, 2017

Shiatsu is a type of massage that utilizes pressure points that correspond to organs and energy pathways throughout the body. Its goal is to reinvigorate the circulatory system and decrease muscular tension. Rooted in ancient Japanese and Chinese traditions, Shiatsu massage contributes to relaxation and improvements in health, according to the Shiatsu Society. The Namikoshi system and Zen Shiatsu are two derivatives of traditional shiatsu massage.

Ancient Origins

Shiatsu massage evolved out of Anma, an ancient form of Japanese massage, and acupuncture, a form of Chinese therapy. Anma practice involves tapping, rubbing and applying pressure to different points on the body, stimulating and influencing the muscular and circulatory systems. Tamai Tempaku invented Shiatsu massage at the beginning of the 20th century, and the Japanese government recognized it as a form of medical therapy in 1964. Since the 1940s, many schools of Shiatsu massage -- including the Namikoshi system and Zen Shiatsu -- have developed throughout the world.

Shi and Ki

In Japanese, "shi" means finger and "atsu" means pressure. Shiatsu massage involves pressure application, gentle body manipulation and assisted stretching. Ki is the Japanese term for energy flow throughout the body. For thousands of years, Ki has represented the essence of life in Japanese culture -- nourishment for the body, mind and spirit. Energy flows to organs through specific pathways or meridians. Shiatsu practice strives to eliminate energy imbalances within the organ systems, clearing the path for energy flow. Different pressure points, or tsubos, relate to different organs throughout the body. The practice focuses on these pressure points.

Five Elements

Chinese writings, dating back to the first century, name five elements that are active throughout the body -- fire, earth, metal, water and wood. The elements represent the types of energy forces within the body. Fire imbalances create bitterness, earth imbalances create jealousy, and metal imbalances contribute to depression, according to certain Chinese beliefs. An imbalance in water creates fear, while wood imbalances create impatience. The five elements were introduced into Japanese culture during the sixth century and influenced the development and practice of shiatsu massage. Historical and traditional practices focus on finding elemental imbalances and returning energy to a stable state.

The Namikoshi System

Tokujiro Namikoshi started the Japan Shiatsu college in 1940, integrating traditional technique with western anatomy and physiology. In Namikoshi Shiatsu, digital and manual compression are applied systematically to specific pressure points, relying less on identification of the five elements. Marilyn Monroe was reportedly treated for an unknown illness by Namikoshi in the 1950s, which contributed to the acceptance of Namikoshi's system within Western society.

Zen Shiatsu

Shizuto Masunaga, a Japanese psychologist, created Zen Shiatsu in 1977. The modern form of Zen Shiatsu incorporates psychology, pressure points and neurology into the therapy. Masunaga developed exercises for individuals to perform outside of sessions to help reduce energy imbalances. Zen Shiatsu is a blend of eastern and western philosophies and is a common form of shiatsu massage in the United States.

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