Origins of Japanese Acupuncture

Many people in the Western world may not be aware that there are several different styles of acupuncture. While China is credited as the place where acupuncture originated, many indigenous cultures practiced some form of what we now call acupuncture and acupressure on painful areas using a variety of implements found in their environments - rocks, animal bones, and twigs and branches. Migration of various peoples from China to neighboring areas led to the transmission of many aspects of the culture, including but not limited to medical knowledge and practice. Because the Chinese language has been somewhat continuous over thousands of years, to a much greater extent than the languages of any of the other cultures from which a similar style of treatment emerged, the Chinese form of this healing art is what is accepted as acupuncture.

The Mawangdui Texts, written during the 2nd century B.C.E. and discovered in China in the 1970s, provide an example of this fact. The texts were were prepared centuries ago and were able to be translated, albeit with some difficulty, by modern-day scholars (1). Among other topics, they discuss primitive acupuncture treatments. The most common style of acupuncture taught and used in the United States is TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), which is a Chinese style of treatment. Japanese acupuncturist Shudo Denmei noted that historically in Japan, Chinese acupuncture flourished from the fifth century C.E. until the ninth century C.E., when communication between Japanese emissaries and the Chinese stopped due to political changes. At that time, acupuncture began to develop in China and in Japan along different paths (2). In China, communication with the outside world continued, and acupuncture evolved under some influence from the West in terms of distillation of medical knowledge to abbreviated models of treatment that could be used for specific ailments and diseases. In contrast, Japan was relatively isolated, except for a short period of communication with the Dutch, until the 1800s when foreigners were allowed to enter the country again (3). From the 1920s until the 1940s, there was a movement in Japan to disallow Western influences on the medicine and return to its classical roots as outlined in ancient Chinese texts and practiced in traditional settings(4). Today, Japanese acupuncture takes into consideration a detailed and literal reliance on ancient texts as well as a uniquely Japanese sensibility influencing treatment style. As compared to Chinese-style acupuncture, Japanese acupuncture in general employs thinner needles and lighter needling techniques to move or supplement the vital energy, or ki (known as “chi” in common parlance). Diagnosis assumes that patients have deficiencies that need to be filled rather than excesses that need to be taken away; in fact, if relative excesses are found, the ki is redirected to an area that needs it instead of being released from the body entirely as in a Chinese-style treatment for an excess condition. In addition, the practitioner experiences most of the sensations of needling rather than the patient. American Acupuncturist Felice Dunas, Ph.D., summarized this difference between TCM and Japanese acupuncture as follows:

"My teachers have told me that Chinese needling technique works, for the most part, on the premise of 'no pain, no gain.' If there is no sensation of chi for the patient, the treatment is ineffectual. Acupuncturists who practice Chinese technique intentionally manipulate needles well beyond the comfort zone of most Americans. In Japan, the opposite is true. If the patient even feels needle insertion, the treatment is less effective. If the patient experiences pain upon the rising of chi, you may as well pack up and go home, because no benefit will come from the work. The Chinese practitioner fails if the patient feels nothing; the Japanese practitioner fails if the patient feels anything. Same patient; same syndromes. Go figure (5)."

Acupuncture has evolved to suit the needs of both the practitioners doing treatments and the patients they serve. It is not possible to state unequivocally that one style of treatment is superior to any other; they all work in the hands of sincere and talented practitioners. The best of both worlds occurs when practitioners and patients are open to finding and using the techniques that yield the greatest benefit for each situation.

(1). “Mawangdui Silk Texts”. Wikepedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

(2-4). Shudo Denmei. Japanese Classical Acupuncture: Introduction to Meridian Therapy. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1990.

(5). Felice Dunas. "Adventures with Captain X". Acupuncture Today, April 2006, Volume 7, Number 4, p. 12.

Kerri Winston, Ph.D., L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist with a practice in Atlanta, Georgia's Buckhead area. If you are interested in learning more about how acupuncture can help you or your loved ones, please call 404-949-0550 or send email to