Tradition of Blind Acupuncturists in Japan and Toyo Hari

 

The tradition of encouraging blind individuals toward careers in acupuncture has been instrumental in developing the Japanese style. The unique skill set of blind individuals, including heightened tactile sensation, have developed how both blind and sighted persons practice the medicine today. This tradition has ensured the survival of acupuncture in Japan during several critical shifts in the country’s history. There were various attempts to disband acupuncture in Japan as influences from west brought pressure to assimilate, however, the community of blind acupuncturists fought to keep their occupation and the tradition alive. The advancement of this practice has been traced back to the 17th century and credited to the famously blind acupuncturist Waichi Sugiyama. Since Sugiyama, the style of Japanese acupuncture has grown and flourished into a community of blind and sighted practitioners across the globe. 

The practice of acupuncture came to Japan during a period of cultural influence from Korea and China. Due to the lack of documentation in existence, there is very little knowledge about the medical practices in ancient Japan before the cultural influences of Korea and China. Travelers came to Japan via the Silk Roads bringing with them new ideas in art, technology, and medicine. It has been deduced migrations of people from the Korean peninsula likely introduced herbal remedies to Japan in 414 AD1. As direct travel from China became possible so began cultural exchanges that would have a strong influence on Japanese medical practice. The oldest known record of formal medical literature in Japan arrived in 562 from China in the form of writings on herbal medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion, tao-yin, and massage1,2. After their introduction, these therapies flourished in Japan and developed over time to have characteristics that are uniquely Japanese. 

Acupuncture in Japan has developed to regard palpation as the most important diagnostic tool, included feeling the pulse, hara (abdominal) and skin textures of the channels and acupuncture points. The emphasis on palpation has been thought to come from the tradition of directing blind individuals toward careers in shiatsu massage and acupuncture. One of the most famous blind practitioners, Waichi Sugiyama, lived and practiced in the last 1600’s. Sugiyama was born in 1610 to a wealthy samurai family, and his father was a subordinate of Takatora Todo, the Lord of both Isa and Iga countries. Sugiyama was born sighted and believed to have lost his sight around 5-10 years of age either from an outbreak of smallpox or measles. During this period in Japan it was common to direct blind people toward learning massage, moxibustion, or acupuncture and at 17 years old Waichi left his home in Ise to study under Master Yamase, a blind practitioner, and teacher, in Edo (present-day Tokyo). At this time there was not a form of writing such as braille that would have allowed Waichi to read therefore his training would have been primarily listening to his teacher and hands-on learning. Waichi trained with Master Yamase for several years, an element of myth and legend alludes that Waichi may have been a poor student under Yamase and was eventually dismissed, although others have concluded he may have simply completed his education. Regardless, he continued his training with a sighted teacher in Kyoto, Mater Irie3.

 During his career, Sugiyama was employed by the 4th shogun, or military ruler of Japan, Ietsuna, and the 5th shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.  He also opened several schools for the blind to learn the medicine of acupuncture and massage, further promoting these vocations as a desirable profession for blind individuals. In 1682 the school Sugiyama operated was approved to become a formal acupuncture school and was in operation for almost 200 years until the Meiji period3.

Sugiyama further contributed to the field through his production of literature. He wrote two books on clinical practice and technique “Ryouji no Daigaishi (The Book of Treatment), and “Senshin Sanyo-shu” (Three Main Acupuncture Methods) and a third book on medical theory ‘Igakusetsuyou shu’. Sugiyama’s writings were later combined into a single work ‘Sugiyama ryu sanbu sho’ (The Three books of Sugiyama’s Method”, by Imamura Ryoan, the doctor to the Meiji Emperor and a professor at the Tokyo University3. The production of these texts is significant as during Sugiyama’s time sighted individuals wrote all the existing works. One of the techniques mentioned in his writings is the use of a guide tube for needle insertion. Sugiyama has been credited for the invention of the guide tube insertion. This technique allowed for the use of thinner needles and has remained a strong influence in Japanese style acupuncture today3

Later in his career, he was appointed and served as the chief officer of Toudouza, a mutual aid society for the blind in Japan. This organization provided financial assistance for the blind, and at the time Sugiyama took office was notorious for the greed of its members and corruption. Sugiyama was instrumental in the societies reform and implementing support for the welfare of blind individuals in Japan3

In the wake of Sugiyama’s legacy, the tradition of blind acupuncturists has continued throughout Japan’s history. However, several transitions occurred in Japan that threatened the continuation of this tradition and acupuncture as a whole. In the late 1800’s during the Meiji restoration the west had a significant influence after Japan opened to its to to the global trade market a ripple of urgency  to modernize industries swept the country. During this movement, laws passed restricting the practice of acupuncture to those trained as Western physicians. In response to the attempts to nullify the practice blind acupuncturists and those that supported the tradition protested out of fear of losing their livelihood and out of interest in preserving the tradition for future blind individuals. During this time these occupations were regarded as one of the primary ways blind individuals could be gainfully employed.  In response to their protests, an exception was made allowing for the continued practice of acupuncture by blind persons. Today in Japan both blind and sighted practitioners can work in clinics, hospitals, and private practice3.

The practice of acupuncture was again threatened after the Second World War when General MacArthur attempted to ban acupuncture in Japan during the time of United States occupancy. As before, it was was the community of blind acupuncturists that lobbied to keep the profession and inadvertently allowed the practice to survive for those blind and sighted. Acupuncture even flourished as the there was a movement for the establishment of vocational training for veterans blinded in the war3. This was the case for another historically influential blind acupuncturist Kudo Fukushima. Although he opposed the war and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria he was forcibly enlisted in the army and lost his sight as a result of the injuries he sustained fighting on the front lines. After returning home and recovering he sought a new occupation and enrolled in the Nagano Public School for the Blind were he studied acupuncture and moxibustion. He then went on to co-found the Toyo-Hari Medical Association in 1959 to train blind acupuncturists in meridian therapy; membership has since been opened to include sighted people and foreigners. The Toyohari school teaches a form of Meridian Therapy originating from the teachings of Kodo Fukushima3,4. Currently, the Tokyo Toyo Hari Association trains both blind and sighted students acupuncturists in the Meridian Therapy system and has associated branches throughout Japan, in the United States, United Kingdom, throughout Europe and Australia3.

Reports from the Japan Federation of the Blind show the number of blind individuals working in acupuncture, massage and moxibustion have been declining. In 1960 over 60% of blind people worked in these fields compared to just 24% in 20063. In contrast to the number of blind individuals in the field, there has been an increase in sighted people entering the profession. It is speculated this trend is a reflection of the diversifying of occupations available for blind individuals and an increase in general acceptance of acupuncture in the mainstream culture3

In the United States, there are very few blind practitioners as these individuals face significantly more challenges if they wish to enter the profession. One such example comes from Texas in 2008. Juliana Cumbo completed her studies at The Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin and passed the national exams. However, she was denied a license by the Texas State Board of Acupuncture Examiners due to her lack of sight and they ruled that she required additional observation before she could earn a license. After completing the requested observations, she was granted a license for three years with restrictions that required her not to practice alone and only in a group hospital setting. She was eligible to overturn these limits after a one year period3. As acupuncture becomes more accepted in the United States, it is still unclear if acupuncture can become a viable occupation for blind individuals.

The Japanese style of acupuncture, as practiced by both blind and sighted individuals, has a unique offering in a world that is becoming more familiar with acupuncture and also more dominated by the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) model. It is essential to recognize the diversity of styles within the practice of acupuncture because as with any medicine, not everyone will find the same method therapeutic. The Japanese style is often regarded as being a more sensitive and gentle practice. Having a range of therapies originating from various traditions will make the community of acupuncture as a whole stronger as it has throughout history.

Tools used in Toyo Hari Style

 

Tradition of Blind Acupuncturists in Japan and Toyo Hari

 

The tradition of encouraging blind individuals toward careers in acupuncture has been instrumental in developing the Japanese style. The unique skill set of blind individuals, including heightened tactile sensation, have developed how both blind and sighted persons practice the medicine today. This tradition has ensured the survival of acupuncture in Japan during several critical shifts in the country’s history. There were various attempts to disband acupuncture in Japan as influences from west brought pressure to assimilate, however, the community of blind acupuncturists fought to keep their occupation and the tradition alive. The advancement of this practice has been traced back to the 17th century and credited to the famously blind acupuncturist Waichi Sugiyama. Since Sugiyama, the style of Japanese acupuncture has grown and flourished into a community of blind and sighted practitioners across the globe. 

The practice of acupuncture came to Japan during a period of cultural influence from Korea and China. Due to the lack of documentation in existence, there is very little knowledge about the medical practices in ancient Japan before the cultural influences of Korea and China. Travelers came to Japan via the Silk Roads bringing with them new ideas in art, technology, and medicine. It has been deduced migrations of people from the Korean peninsula likely introduced herbal remedies to Japan in 414 AD1. As direct travel from China became possible so began cultural exchanges that would have a strong influence on Japanese medical practice. The oldest known record of formal medical literature in Japan arrived in 562 from China in the form of writings on herbal medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion, tao-yin, and massage1,2. After their introduction, these therapies flourished in Japan and developed over time to have characteristics that are uniquely Japanese. 

Acupuncture in Japan has developed to regard palpation as the most important diagnostic tool, included feeling the pulse, hara (abdominal) and skin textures of the channels and acupuncture points. The emphasis on palpation has been thought to come from the tradition of directing blind individuals toward careers in shiatsu massage and acupuncture. One of the most famous blind practitioners, Waichi Sugiyama, lived and practiced in the last 1600’s. Sugiyama was born in 1610 to a wealthy samurai family, and his father was a subordinate of Takatora Todo, the Lord of both Isa and Iga countries. Sugiyama was born sighted and believed to have lost his sight around 5-10 years of age either from an outbreak of smallpox or measles. During this period in Japan it was common to direct blind people toward learning massage, moxibustion, or acupuncture and at 17 years old Waichi left his home in Ise to study under Master Yamase, a blind practitioner, and teacher, in Edo (present-day Tokyo). At this time there was not a form of writing such as braille that would have allowed Waichi to read therefore his training would have been primarily listening to his teacher and hands-on learning. Waichi trained with Master Yamase for several years, an element of myth and legend alludes that Waichi may have been a poor student under Yamase and was eventually dismissed, although others have concluded he may have simply completed his education. Regardless, he continued his training with a sighted teacher in Kyoto, Mater Irie3.

 During his career, Sugiyama was employed by the 4th shogun, or military ruler of Japan, Ietsuna, and the 5th shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.  He also opened several schools for the blind to learn the medicine of acupuncture and massage, further promoting these vocations as a desirable profession for blind individuals. In 1682 the school Sugiyama operated was approved to become a formal acupuncture school and was in operation for almost 200 years until the Meiji period3.

Sugiyama further contributed to the field through his production of literature. He wrote two books on clinical practice and technique “Ryouji no Daigaishi (The Book of Treatment), and “Senshin Sanyo-shu” (Three Main Acupuncture Methods) and a third book on medical theory ‘Igakusetsuyou shu’. Sugiyama’s writings were later combined into a single work ‘Sugiyama ryu sanbu sho’ (The Three books of Sugiyama’s Method”, by Imamura Ryoan, the doctor to the Meiji Emperor and a professor at the Tokyo University3. The production of these texts is significant as during Sugiyama’s time sighted individuals wrote all the existing works. One of the techniques mentioned in his writings is the use of a guide tube for needle insertion. Sugiyama has been credited for the invention of the guide tube insertion. This technique allowed for the use of thinner needles and has remained a strong influence in Japanese style acupuncture today3

Later in his career, he was appointed and served as the chief officer of Toudouza, a mutual aid society for the blind in Japan. This organization provided financial assistance for the blind, and at the time Sugiyama took office was notorious for the greed of its members and corruption. Sugiyama was instrumental in the societies reform and implementing support for the welfare of blind individuals in Japan3

In the wake of Sugiyama’s legacy, the tradition of blind acupuncturists has continued throughout Japan’s history. However, several transitions occurred in Japan that threatened the continuation of this tradition and acupuncture as a whole. In the late 1800’s during the Meiji restoration the west had a significant influence after Japan opened to its to to the global trade market a ripple of urgency  to modernize industries swept the country. During this movement, laws passed restricting the practice of acupuncture to those trained as Western physicians. In response to the attempts to nullify the practice blind acupuncturists and those that supported the tradition protested out of fear of losing their livelihood and out of interest in preserving the tradition for future blind individuals. During this time these occupations were regarded as one of the primary ways blind individuals could be gainfully employed.  In response to their protests, an exception was made allowing for the continued practice of acupuncture by blind persons. Today in Japan both blind and sighted practitioners can work in clinics, hospitals, and private practice3.

The practice of acupuncture was again threatened after the Second World War when General MacArthur attempted to ban acupuncture in Japan during the time of United States occupancy. As before, it was was the community of blind acupuncturists that lobbied to keep the profession and inadvertently allowed the practice to survive for those blind and sighted. Acupuncture even flourished as the there was a movement for the establishment of vocational training for veterans blinded in the war3. This was the case for another historically influential blind acupuncturist Kudo Fukushima. Although he opposed the war and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria he was forcibly enlisted in the army and lost his sight as a result of the injuries he sustained fighting on the front lines. After returning home and recovering he sought a new occupation and enrolled in the Nagano Public School for the Blind were he studied acupuncture and moxibustion. He then went on to co-found the Toyo-Hari Medical Association in 1959 to train blind acupuncturists in meridian therapy; membership has since been opened to include sighted people and foreigners. The Toyohari school teaches a form of Meridian Therapy originating from the teachings of Kodo Fukushima3,4. Currently, the Tokyo Toyo Hari Association trains both blind and sighted students acupuncturists in the Meridian Therapy system and has associated branches throughout Japan, in the United States, United Kingdom, throughout Europe and Australia3.

Reports from the Japan Federation of the Blind show the number of blind individuals working in acupuncture, massage and moxibustion have been declining. In 1960 over 60% of blind people worked in these fields compared to just 24% in 20063. In contrast to the number of blind individuals in the field, there has been an increase in sighted people entering the profession. It is speculated this trend is a reflection of the diversifying of occupations available for blind individuals and an increase in general acceptance of acupuncture in the mainstream culture3

In the United States, there are very few blind practitioners as these individuals face significantly more challenges if they wish to enter the profession. One such example comes from Texas in 2008. Juliana Cumbo completed her studies at The Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin and passed the national exams. However, she was denied a license by the Texas State Board of Acupuncture Examiners due to her lack of sight and they ruled that she required additional observation before she could earn a license. After completing the requested observations, she was granted a license for three years with restrictions that required her not to practice alone and only in a group hospital setting. She was eligible to overturn these limits after a one year period3. As acupuncture becomes more accepted in the United States, it is still unclear if acupuncture can become a viable occupation for blind individuals.

The Japanese style of acupuncture, as practiced by both blind and sighted individuals, has a unique offering in a world that is becoming more familiar with acupuncture and also more dominated by the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) model. It is essential to recognize the diversity of styles within the practice of acupuncture because as with any medicine, not everyone will find the same method therapeutic. The Japanese style is often regarded as being a more sensitive and gentle practice. Having a range of therapies originating from various traditions will make the community of acupuncture as a whole stronger as it has throughout history.

Tools used in Toyo Hari Style