History of Japanese Massage Therapy
If you’re something of a massage enthusiast, you probably know of two main types of different massage therapy: Swedish massage and Asian massage. It’s probably not that surprising to hear that there are in fact dozens of subcategories of European, American, and Asian massage therapies, but many people don’t realize that it’s not always correct to lump different branches of massage together.
That’s why we put together this brief history of Japanese massage, which is believed to be one of the earliest-developed massage therapy with its roots in even older traditional Chinese massage and medicinal practices.
According to ancient texts from the year 1000 BCE, some Japanese Buddhist monks were training in China. This is where they were exposed to the ancient Chinese massage therapy known as “an mo” or “tui na.” The monks trained in this type of massage, and when they returned to Japan, they brought back what they had learned.
Eventually this blossomed into a different kind of Asian massage, called “an ma,” after distinct Japanese modifications were made to the strokes to separate it from the traditional Chinese methods. The strokes of “an ma” are delivered in the direction away from the heart over clothed clients and traditionally does not use oils, ointments, salves, or lubricants.
The “an ma” technique became more popular during the 17th century as more and more healing practitioners began to incorporate different practices of their own. Some more traditional sects only trained the blind in “an ma.”
This practice did not catch on as widely, for various reasons, but in some areas of Japan, sighted people were forbidden from learning “an ma,” and receiving “an ma” treatment from a traditional blind practitioner was considered a humbling experience and a high honor.
As time went on, acupuncture was added on to the traditional strokes, and other modifications were made to the “an ma” technique.
Thus it came about that “an ma” massage became more focused on relaxation than physical healing and well being, and about the 1940’s, a whole different branch of Japanese massage diverged from the traditional “an ma.” This is the technique called “shiatsu,” a name might you might recognize, with strokes including kneading, percussion, squeezing, pressing, and vibration. “Shiatsu” massage incorporates the ancient disciplines of pressure with newer, Western techniques and sciences, using primarily pressure from the fingers and hands.
Shiatsu massage does not use any kinds of instruments, which is different from ancient Chinese massage therapy techniques, which sometimes used spoons or mallets for added sensation. However, “an ma” techniques continue to be practiced both in Japan and across the world. Traditional “an ma” massage therapists were nomadic, traveling in clans, but this is not as commonly seen today, especially with the “shiatsu” sub-type.
“Shiatsu” massage is a type of Asian massage dedicated to rejuvenating the whole person, including the spiritual, emotional, and mental parts of the person in addition to the physical body. “Shiatsu” is focused on balance and harmony, using deep, relaxing strokes. Today there are different subcategories of “shiatsu” massage, each with their own styles, philosophies, and more. Some use pressure, others use flow, and it varies as so.
One example of such a subcategory is called Zen Shiatsu, which is thought to have a more direct correlation to spirituality, inspired by the Zen Buddhist monks of Japan.
Today, in the Western world, there are a variety of different schools of Asian massage that feature a blend of different practices. For example, combining Asian massage with Swedish massage techniques, incorporated with the anatomy and physiology theories that were popularized by Western medicine, create a unique flavor of massage treatment.
Some practices are used in parlors and massage clinics that are not used in others, including whether the treatment is performed against the skin or above the clothes, whether oils and salves as used, and other details.
However, there are still some key differences between Asian massage and Swedish massage. For example, Shiatsu practitioners will assess the patient’s appearance, including their face, hands, and body, to determine which areas of the person need the most attention. However, Swedish massage techniques use long, smooth, gliding strokes as opposed to finger pressure and tapping, to reach the joints and connective tissue.
From a philosophical standpoint, Swedish massage therapy is based more on the circulatory systems of the body, including blood and lymph, while Asian massage typically focuses on restoring the balance of energy throughout the body rather than following physical anatomy.
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