By Sara Calabro

Many acupuncturists say on their websites that they practice Japanese acupuncture. Ever wonder what that means? How does Japanese acupuncture differ from other forms? And wait, isn’t all acupuncture Chinese?

As far as we know, all acupuncture did originate in China. (Although theories abound.) However, it didn’t take long for other countries, once they got their hands on acupuncture, to start developing their own versions. In the case of Japan, scholars estimate that acupuncture made its way there, possibly via Korean immigrants, sometime around the fifth century.

Japanese acupuncture in the ensuing decades adapted according to political, social and religious influences of the times. Early into what’s known as the Edo period (1603-1868), a blind acupuncturist named Waichi Sugiyama came onto the scene and inspired the brand of acupuncture that to this day is considered signature Japanese.

Three key features of Japanese acupuncture

There’s no comprehensive definition for “Japanese acupuncture,” as several approaches fall under the umbrella. But a few characteristics are shared by the various styles:

Strong emphasis on touch

An acupuncturist who practices Japanese acupuncture will probably be a lot more interested in palpating your abdomen than looking at your tongue.

Historically in Japan, largely due to Waichi Sugiyama’s influence, acupuncture was a profession for the blind. Even today, a significant percentage of acupuncturists in Japan are blind. While in China acupuncture is closely aligned with herbal medicine, acupuncture in Japan is thought of more in the realm of massage, both requiring a refined sense of touch.

In addition to using abdominal palpation as a key diagnostic tool, Japanese acupuncturists feel around a lot before needling acupuncture points. Some might even “test” certain points, holding a finger on an acupuncture point while simultaneously pressing another (usually painful) part of the body to see if it alleviates symptoms in that area.

A natural outcome of this approach is that there tends to be a lot of interaction between acupuncturist and patient. Feedback is critical to guiding the treatment.

Thinner needles

The attention to precise point location in Japanese acupuncture means that the needles don’t have to work as hard. As such, most Japanese acupuncturists use very thin needles and insert them very shallowly. It is not uncommon for a patient to feel no needle sensation whatsoever throughout an entire treatment.

Some people favor the traditional Chinese approach—”I really feel it working“—but Japanese acupuncture treatments are equally powerful and generally preferable for those who are physically weak or needle sensitive.

Moxa is big

If your Japanese acupuncturist’s office smells a little different, it’s probably burning mugwort, also known as moxibustion. Moxa is to Japanese acupuncture what cupping is to TCM, its most popular adjunct.

Moxa can be used in various ways but the most common is direct application of small cones on the skin. These cones are lit with an incense stick and left burning until the patient feels heat, usually after a few seconds.

The warming sensation and smell—most describe it as pleasant—add to the overall relaxing experience of a Japanese acupuncture treatment.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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