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In The Land Of The Blind

An Acupuncture Tradition From The Blind Toyo Hari Masters Of Japan.

Most people know that acupuncture is an ancient tradition of holistic medicine, which has been practiced continuously in China for at least the last two thousand years. What most people don’t know is that many other Asian countries have a long history of acupuncture and have also developed very vibrant and innovative approaches to this ancient healing tradition. Japan is one of those countries with a very dynamic tradition of acupuncture which has taken a markedly different approach to that of the Chinese. While it is Chinese acupuncture that has taken the lead in the practice of Oriental medicine in the west, interest is increasing in some of the other traditions and a growing movement in Japanese acupuncture is beginning to emerge.

A brief history of ­Acupuncture in Japan

The practice of acupuncture seems to have originated in China roughly around 200-100 BCE. Knowledge of Acupuncture appears to have been brought to Japan from China by a physician-monk named Zhicong (Chiso in Japanese) in the year 562 C.E.1 He is said to have brought with him over 160 volumes of Chinese medical texts, which represented the state of the art of the medicine at that time. By the 8th century government sponsored acupuncture medical schools had been established in Japan and medical knowledge from China continued to be assimilated by the Japanese. However, by the middle of the 10th century political tensions began to arise between China and Japan and contact with China became increasingly cut off. It was during this period that Japanese physicians began making refinements to the Chinese system and started to make their own unique innovations to the medicine.

Around the end of the 17th century some very interesting things started happening in Japan acupuncture. It was during this time that a blind acupuncturist named Waichi Sugiyama became famous by inventing a special insertion tube (which is still in use today) that allowed for less painful insertion of the needle. Sugiyama went on to establish the first acupuncture school for the blind in Japan and this was the beginning of what has become one of the most interesting and unique characteristics of Japanese acupuncture: a strong influence by a large contingent of blind practitioners.

The idea of blind practitioners using needles may initially seem somewhat strange to us in the west. However, it is commonly known that with the loss of sight comes an enhancement of the other senses. The ability of blind practitioners to sense the movement of subtle energies within and around the body is said to be quite extraordinary. This ability allows for highly refined pulse diagnosis and treatment techniques and this gift is used to help restore health to those seeking treatment. From the Japanese point of view, the practice of acupuncture utilizes the enhanced tactile skill of the blind and provides a profession where they may naturally excel. To this day a large group of blind practitioners continues to influence both the practice and theory of acupuncture and shiatsu massage in Japan. The style of acupuncture that is most strongly associated with the blind is known as the Toyo Hari (Eastern Needle) style.

Some Differences between Toyo Hari and Chinese acupuncture.

Because Japanese acupuncture is based on the Chinese classics, both Japanese and Chinese acupuncture share the same meridians and points and many of the same underlying philosophical principles. However, from a clinical perspective the Toyo Hari style differs from the more common Chinese styles in many interesting and important ways. Generally speaking Toyo Hari practitioners use far thinner needles than their Chinese counterparts. For instance, most commonly used Chinese needles are about 0.30 mm in diameter, while a typical Japanese needle used in Toyo Hari will be between 0.12 mm-16mm.

The needles are usually not inserted as deeply as they are in Chinese acupuncture and very often they are not inserted through the skin at all. Rather, the needles are used to either nourish or to move qi(vital energy) in a very gentle but powerful technique known in Japanese as Ho ­technique or in English as touch needling. Because of the difference in approach to needling technique, Toyo Hari acupuncture is often experienced as more gentle and less painful than most of the Chinese styles. Many westerners find this approach more appealing.

There are some other interesting differences between Toyo Hari and Chinese acupuncture. For example it is quite common for a Chinese style acupuncturist to insert the needles into the patient and leave the room while the patient is left “to cook”. In the Toyo Hari system the practitioner usually remains in the room throughout the treatment tinkering with the flow of qi in one way or another until the pulses become balanced.

This leads to another important difference: because the blind Toyo Hari masters have such a highly developed tactile sense, their school of acupuncture utilizes this skill and incorporates more palpation, touch and pulse listening for both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. The radial pulse and the abdomen are heavily relied upon for diagnosis and they are used as an instant feedback mechanism to monitor and direct the course of treatment. Treatment is broken up into several stages beginning with what we call the root treatment and ending with symptomatic control. The main focus of treatment is centered on the root causes of the disease and the underlying imbalance is always directly addressed. The root treatment begins first by balancing the yin meridians and then balancing the yang meridians.

Any deficiencies of qi are nourished and deficient meridians are strengthened, any obstructions in the flow of qi are broken up much like logjams on a river. In this way the flow of qi in the body becomes smoother, both the yin and the yang aspect are brought into balance and health and well being can then be achieved. Patients often report being surprised at feeling subtle sensations of qi flowing in their bodies as the treatment unfolds.

Toyo Hari Acupuncture also has some philosophical and spiritual differences with the Chinese styles that are more commonly practiced today. While Chinese acupuncture is steeped in the tradition of two thousand years of Taoist and Confucian thought, it is Maoist and Chinese communist ideology that has exerted a more recent influence on Chinese acupuncture both in China and here in the west. Many of the spiritual aspects of the medicine were discarded by communist ideologues in favor of a more scientific approach. Toyo Hari has been largely free of this kind of political and ideological influence and instead has remained true to its traditional Taoist and Zen Buddhist roots. Many of the Toyo Hari teachings emphasize the importance of clearing the mind, focusing intention and developing stillness while working with the patient’s qi.

Of course China is the birthplace of Acupuncture and should be honored for it’s great gift to the world. There are many gifted and compassionate practitioners who work in the Chinese tradition of acupuncture and this article is not trying to suggest that any one style is better than any other. Rather, my intention is to educate the public about the wonderful diversity of styles available to us here in the west.

I suggest that those who are interested in seeking out the many therapeutic benefits of acupuncture try a variety of styles and practitioners to find out first hand which works best for them.



1. Japanese Acupuncture, A Clinical Guide By Stepen Birch & Junko Ida, Paradigm Publications 1998.

Robert A. Weinstein L.Ac. holds a ­Masters degree in Acupuncture and ­Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine from The Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. He has completed an additional seven-month Toyo Hari training and currently practices Toyo Hari and other Japanese Styles of acupuncture as well as Chinese Herbal Medicine at his Seattle clinic. He can be reached at (206) 954-0609 or on the web at robert@thesourcepoint.net


© Reprinted from Winter 2004-05 Qi Journal

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