Woman receiving shiatsu massage treatment

The History of Shiatsu Massage

Shiatsu massage is a Japanese therapeutic massage technique, which in its present form, is just over a hundred years old, but has roots that extend back for thousands of years. Shiatsu is derived from two Japanese words, “shi,” meaning finger, and “atsu,” meaning pressure. Shiatsu massage involves applying pressure to specific points on the body using fingers, thumbs, palms, and sometimes even the elbows and knees.

Shiatsu Massage Concepts Originated in China

The origins of shiatsu can be traced back to ancient Chinese medicine, which believed that the human body is composed of energy pathways known as meridians. The meridians connect all the body’s different parts, including the organs, muscles, and bones. The energy that flows through these meridians is known as Qi (pronounced “chee”). The five elements theory was developed to diagnose malady, treat imbalances, and restore proper flow of Qi through our meridians. A technique known as “Tui Na” (push, lift, and squeeze) appears to be an early ancestor of shiatsu because they share a similar approach of kneading, rubbing, and palpating parts of the body to open meridians and restore wellness.

Massage Evolution in Japan: Tui Na to Anma

Shiatsu’s ancestor, Tui Na, was introduced to Japan around the 6th century AD, along with other aspects of Chinese culture, such as acupuncture and moxibustion. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that shiatsu massage began to develop into its modern form.

The Japanese embraced Tui Na, making it their own thereby creating Anma. The practice of anma inherits the kneading, rubbing, and squeezing of Tui Na and builds from there to include tapping, vibrating and shaking parts of the body as well as abdominal palpation and using the knuckles vigorously to apply acupressure techniques. All of this is done with the intention of increasing blood flow to muscles and deep tissues.

Massage Evolution in Japan: Anma to Shiatsu

One of the key figures in the development of shiatsu massage was Tokujiro Namikoshi, who was born in 1905 on the southern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Namikoshi was a sickly child, and his mother would often massage him to help alleviate his symptoms. As he grew older, Namikoshi became interested in the healing power of massage and began to study different massage techniques.

Namikoshi’s breakthrough came when he was 17 years old, and he treated a young girl who was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Namikoshi used his fingers to apply pressure to specific points on the girl’s body, and she soon began to feel better. This experience convinced Namikoshi that his technique had real healing power, and he set out to develop it further.

Namikoshi’s technique was based on anma. However, Namikoshi added his own twist, using his fingers instead of knuckles to apply pressure to specific points on the body.

Namikoshi opened his own shiatsu massage clinic in 1925, and his technique quickly gained popularity. In 1940, he established the shiatsu Institute of Therapy in Tokyo, which became the first shiatsu massage school.

The Post-War Ban

Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, the conquering general, General Douglas MacArthur banned many traditional Japanese practices such as anma and shiatsu during the American occupation. Both anma and shiatsu were disciplines often practiced by the blind. The ban made it difficult for many blind people to earn a living. When news of this hardship made it back to the US, these Japanese practitioners earned a powerful ally in Helen Keller. An advocate for the blind, Keller lobbied President Harry Truman to force MacArthur to lift the ban. She was successful and the practice continued in Japan.

Namikoshi’s Shiatsu Legacy

In the following years, more shiatsu massage schools were established in Japan, and the technique began to spread to different parts of the world. In the 1960s, shiatsu massage gained popularity in Europe and the United States, and it is currently practiced in many countries worldwide.

Shiatsu in the Contemporary World

Today, shiatsu massage is recognized as a legitimate form of therapy in Japan and regulated by the Japanese Ministry of Health. In addition, shiatsu massage is recognized as a complementary therapy by many Western countries, and it is often used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, such as chiropractic or physiotherapy.

Shiatsu in luxury massage chairs

The sensation and relaxation derived from shiatsu massage led it to be emulated in a host of hand-held machines and massage chairs. OHCO’s luxury massage chairs from Japan capture the methodology and technique of shiatsu with a variety of technologically advanced features including:

  • The SENS8™ massage mechanism that uses algorithms to mimic the feel of human hands 
  • Back Autoscan technology that identifies shiatsu points across your neck, back and seat to personalize the massage session.

Most importantly, this technology comes together to provide an authentic massage experience through the visionary shiatsu choreography of revered practitioner, sensei Okabayashi.

Shiatsu massage has a rich and fascinating history that spans thousands of years. From its origins in ancient Chinese medicine to its modern form, shiatsu massage is used to treat a wide range of physical and emotional ailments. Today, shiatsu massage is recognized as a legitimate form of therapy and is practiced by thousands of trained practitioners worldwide.