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January 16, 2018

A Brief History of Japanese Acupuncture & How it’s Different from Chinese Acupuncture

Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley focuses on teaching the Japanese style of acupuncture which differs from traditional Chinese acupuncture. Learn about the history of this practice and how the different styles developed.

ancient japanese art detailing how acupuncture was developed

What is Acupuncture?

According to the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture, “involves the insertion of very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body.” People turn to acupuncture to treat a variety of ailments including chronic pain, stress, digestive disorders, and infertility. Learn more about what acupuncturists do.

While we don’t know exactly when acupuncture first appeared, it is widely agreed that it originated from China more than 2000 years ago. However, for thousands of years acupuncture had been practiced in other Asian countries as well.

infographic detailing some of the differences between japanese and chinese acupuncture

Acupuncture in Japan

Acupuncture has been an important part of Japan’s medical practice and system for over 1400 years. However, it was a Chinese monk-physician named Chiso who brought acupuncture along with other medical techniques to Japan in the 6th century. During this time, China was far more advanced in the practice of acupuncture, but since then acupuncture in Japan has evolved in its own way.

Japan established the first laws of governing medicine in 701, referred to as Ishitsu-rei.¹ Ishitsu-rei regulated and defined the medical practice of acupuncture and moxibustion. This article mentions, “The laws stated that not only the acupuncture student, but also the medical student had an obligation to study acupoints, inferring that acupuncture was regarded as important medicine.”² Acupuncture continued to be a very significant part of their public health system.

Period of Isolation

For a long time, there was an exchange of knowledge between Japan and China. People who studied in China developed new styles and techniques of acupuncture treatment and organized their own private schools in Japan. This all came to an end when the Japanese government closed off the country in 1635. This was known as a period of isolation and lasted about 200 years.

This isolation heavily influenced the direction of acupuncture. For example, moxibustion (burning mugwort herb to an acupoint) became popular as a treatment that ordinary people could practice by themselves. Also, during this time, Holland was the only country allowed to continue to trade with Japan, thus Holland’s Western medicine had a strong influence on Japanese medicine.

acupuncture needles and ancient medical illustration

The End of an Era

In 1868, the government of Japan ended any support for Japanese (Chinese) traditional medicine and Western medicine became the main medical practice. This brought the ending of a 1200 year span in which acupuncturists were equivalent to doctors.³ However, Despite these tremendous obstacles, Japanese acupuncture survived and has flourished up to our present day.

Development of Japanese Acupuncture

It may be surprising, but acupuncture was taught as an important part of the curriculum at the first school for the blind. Waichi Sugiyama, an influential blind acupuncturist, is credited with needle guide tube invention. He pushed for acupuncture to be taught in schools for the blind since the Edo period.

Over time, new rules for acupuncture and moxibustion clinics were established. By the mid-1930s, there was a revival of Chinese medicine in Japan, advocating holistic treatment. During this time, meridian therapy originated and developed as an acupuncture therapy. Meridian therapy is the theory and system of meridians and treating points by pulse diagnosis. This was a novel way to insert the tip of the needle a few millimeters into the skin and fix it with tape so that it would not move was also invented during this time.⁴

interested in qigong banner

Kampo Medicine

Kampo medicine is Japanese medicine that evolved from the Chinese traditional medicine that was introduced to them during the Kan dynasty (which is where the name Kampo stems from). Kampo medicine is herbal medicine and is commonly prescribed by doctors. According to a 1993 issue of The Lancet, 70% of 200,000 Japaneses physicians regularly prescribe Kampo herbal drugs to their patients. Most of those physicians were gynecologists, urologists, and cardiologists. According to a survey conducted by Nikkei Medical indicated that physicians believed that Western medicine has inherent limits that could be compensated for by these forms of treatment. Kampo medicine has been fully legitimized and widely integrated into the Japanese health care system.

Chinese medical herbal medicine in wooden spoons

Key differences between Japanese and Chinese style acupuncture:

  1. Palpation before the treatment –
    Japanese acupuncture puts a lot of emphasis on the use of abdominal palpation to judge the insertion point of the needle. This practice comes from the many blind acupuncturists of ancient Japan.
  2. Needle insertion methods –
    Now a standard in the acupuncture field in the U.S., guiding tubes for needles were not part of the Ancient Chinese traditions. They were developed in Japan in the 1970s. Chinese acupuncture tends to manipulate the needle when inserted into the body much more than Japanese acupuncture.
  3. The needle size –
    Japanese needles tend to be a smaller gauge, while also typically being sharper than Chinese needles. Many say that this is the reason for a gentler, more superficial needling with less pain on the patient.
  4. The needle insertion depth –
    Japanese needling is extremely gentle and superficial (meaning only focused on the surface and maybe slightly under the surface of the skin). Some Japanese needling techniques include the use of contact needles designed for a specific use that do not penetrate the skin at all. For example, there is a known pediatric method called Shonishin. Chinese needling fosters more depth of insertion. For some patients this may feel to be too painful, while for others this feels as a stronger Qi sensation through the body.
  5. Stronger Qi sensation –
    Chinese acupuncture gives patients a much more distinct feeling of qi moving through specific points in their body.
  6. Herbs as part of the acupuncture treatment –
    A large difference between the two practices lies in the Chinese’ use of herbs in conjunction with acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system, and herbs are an essential aspect of TCM.
  7. Moxibustion –
    Japanese acupuncturists almost always incorporate moxibustion into their treatment. This involves burning cones of moxa (derived from mugwort plant) over the patient’s skin before needling. This warming sensation adds to the soothing nature of Japanese acupuncture. Chinese acupuncturists also may use moxibustion but most frequently in a form of a mugwort charcoal stick that is held above the acupoint until the warming sensation arrives.

moxibustion on patient's back

Interested in a Profession in Acupuncture?

Our master’s and doctorate programs in acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can help you prepare for a future profession in this growing industry. Contact us to learn more about our programs. See when our next open house is to meet our instructors, tour our school, and learn more about what it could be like to be a licensed acupuncturist!

Keep Reading:

What is Qi?
Back Shu Points: How a Needle in my Back Helped my IBS
How Traditional Chinese Medicine Can Help the Opioid Crisis

1 Goto, S. What Is Japanese Acupuncture? The Japan Society of Acupuncture and Moxibustion.
2,3,4 Kobayashi, A., Uefuji, M., & Yasumo, W. (2010 Sep). History and Progress of Japanese Acupuncture. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 7(3), pp. 359-365. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2887322/
5 Watanabe, K. et.al. (2011 Feb). Traditional Japanese Kampo Medicine: Clinical Research between Modernity and Traditional Medicine – The State of Research and Methodological Suggestions for the Future. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011: 513842. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114407/.
6 Oura, J. Translated by Takahashi, H. The Characteristics and Essence of Japanese Acupuncture. North American Journal of Oriental Medicine, 14(41), pp. 3-6. Retrieved from http://www.najom.org/the-characteristics-and-essence-of-japanese-acupuncture.html

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Taylor Anderson

It’s amazing that acupuncture was brought to Japan in the 6th century by a Chinese monk. My aunt has mentioned acupuncture before, so I thought it would be interesting to learn more about it and how long it’s been around. Thanks for all the great information on acupuncture in Japan and how it differs from Chinese acupuncture.