Shiatsu's Saviors

Helen Keller’s and Marilyn Monroe’s Places in Shiatsu History



Marilyn Monroe

Until the beginning of the 19th century, all Japanese physicians were required to learn anma, which is the practice of diagnosing and treating their clothed patients using touch along the network of energy pathways or meridians. This practice dates back to around 1650, when a Japanese physician named Waichi Sugiyama lost his sight. One can assume that his sudden blindness changed the way he experienced touch. He noticed that certain ways of touching affected the muscles and tendons while other ways of touching entered deeply into the internal organs.

Sugiyama went on to establish many medical schools throughout Japan exclusively for the blind. This medical service has been mostly reserved for blind practitioners in Japan to this day. In the early 20th century, the Japanese public began to lose interest in their medical tradition in favor of Western medical advances. Anma was considered an old-fashioned folk medicine.

In 1925, a practitioner named Tamai Tempaku changed the name to shiatsu, meaning “finger pressure” in an effort to renew interest. Then in 1948, during the American occupation of Japan, U.S. President Harry Truman criminalized the practice of Japanese traditional medicine including shiatsu. Many traditional doctors became unemployed, including the blind shiatsu practitioners.

Helen Keller, the blind-deaf activist for human rights, was beloved by the Japanese people even before the war. She had come to Japan to experience the devastation in Hiroshima. The blind shiatsu practitioners contacted her and asked for her help. Keller appealed to President Truman and he eventually removed the ban.

Another famous American, Marilyn Monroe, is believed to have benefitted from shiatsu. In 1954, she was in Tokyo on her honeymoon with baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. The sex goddess had transfixed the country, and she was mobbed everywhere she went as if she could impart her goddess-like sexiness to all who beheld her. The truth was Monroe was plagued by endometriosis on this honeymoon trip and was overcome by excruciating uterine pain.

Hearing of her affliction, the hotel manager called a doctor and arranged for her to receive shiatsu with Tokujiro Namikoshi. According to biographer Carter Wit, “Namikoshi entered the room to discover Marilyn lying naked on the bed. As he later recounted to one of his students she was ‘wearing nothing but Chanel No. 5.’” Namikoshi found it hard to concentrate on his work, eventually spreading his handkerchief over the more distracting areas. According to Wit’s account, within five minutes the pain had dissipated and Monroe was so relaxed that she began to fall asleep.

The Shiatsu School of Vermont (SSV) offers certification programs in zen shiatsu with world-renowned teachers. SSV also offers workshops in zen shiatsu and Thai massage for continuing education credits. One-year certification program starting in Boston begins September. Visit ZenShiatsuBoston.org for details. Overnight accommodations in the lovely town of Brattleboro, Vermont, are included in tuition. For more information, visit ShiatsuVT.org. Marjorie Pivar is director of the Shiatsu School of Vermont and author of Fourth Uncle in the Mountain: The Remarkable Legacy of a Buddhist Itinerant Doctor in Vietnam, (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006).

What is Shiatsu?

Shiatsu is a deeply relaxing and healing form of bodywork therapy that works on four levels of the body: the muscles and tendons, the internal organs, the emotional landscape, and by enhancing spiritual connection. Shiatsu has the same range of benefits as acupuncture and massage and is achieved entirely through touch. Techniques include abdominal assessment, joint rotations, stretches, rocking, and finger and palm pressure. It is done fully clothed on a comfortable mat on the floor or on a massage table. A shiatsu session brings healing to both the practitioner and the client.

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