A lighter touch with Japanese acupuncture

Japanese acupuncture stems from the popular 5000-year-old Chinese tradition of stimulating ki (energy) in the body by inserting thin needles into the skin at specific points. As with all modes of acupuncture, the aim is to create balance in the body’s energy systems by stimulating specific points and meridians to bring about healing, fortifying the vital energy and rebuilding the physical body.

Acupuncture was brought to Japan in the 7th century by a monk, Jean Zhen, during the Tang Dynasty. Over the next 1400 years, the technique was extended by Japanese therapists introducing other techniques and equipment to offer what is considered a gentler form of therapy compared with the depth and strength of Chinese needles, but without minimising the benefits.

Japanese acupuncture uses more delicate (often non-inserted) needling techniques and places great emphasis on the use of pulse diagnosis and palpitation throughout the treatment. In a Chinese treatment, a client’s pulses are mostly felt at the wrist points, whereas in a Japanese treatment a practitioner will listen and feel for pulse and skin palpitation across the entire body throughout the treatment. Many practitioners of Japanese acupuncture, in particular a sub-branch using the Toyohari method, are actually blind and considered masters due to their heightened sensitivity to a client’s pulses.

Today, Japanese acupuncture is part of preventative medicine in Japan and is often practised at home along with the stretching massage, shiatsu, to treat almost every type of human ailment.

Eight oceans of origin

Japanese acupuncture begins with the premise that each human develops with eight extraordinary meridians, also called oceans of origin. The ren mai and du mai are the first meridians formed after the first cell division at conception. When these two cells divide into four, the dai, chong, yin qiao, yan qiao, yin wei and yang wei meridians are formed. In addition, the 12 organ meridians (related to our body organs) are likened to rivers or streams flowing in and out of the eight extraordinary meridians to connect and exchange energy.

The primary objective of Japanese acupuncture is to prompt a person’s own healing ability: either to prevent illness or to address illness. Acupuncture believes the human organism has a basic healing intelligence that needs only a mild stimulus to be activated, whereas a strong stimulation bypasses this system and activates the nervous system, producing a totally different result.

Japanese acupuncturist Takashi Kitahara suggests needling or acupressure (without needles) on specific points “unblocks the stagnation of the energy pathways sort of like a plumbing effect, so you can then heal yourself”. Some patients may think the idea of being prodded with sharp needles is anxiety-provoking enough to destroy any benefits of a session, but often this fear disappears when they realise the needles are as fine as hair and can barely be felt. As with most things, it can be the subtlest shifts we make that create more vital and healthy lifestyles.

Points of difference

Finding the points to stimulate is an art for the most in-tune and dedicated Japanese acupuncturists. A diagnosis is made primarily from presenting signs in a patient’s pulse and abdomen, as well as reactivity in secondary points. Therapists look for areas on the body that are painful, tense, sensitive, indented or hollow, in addition to differences in body temperature and measuring palpitations.

Again differing from Chinese acupuncture, the Japanese method does not map points on the body that apply to all people. This diagnosis evolves further around a complex system of time in relation to an organ system. At each hour, one of the 12 organs is considered to be at its peak for two hours. Each organ system is considered to have a physical, emotional, spiritual, family and physical function. These factors are taken into consideration before determining correct treatment protocol.


Treatments are usually divided into a root (hon chi ho) or local (hyo chi ho) treatment. Root treatments address core energetic and structural imbalances, while local treatments offer symptomatic relief for specific issues. Often a root treatment is first performed to address a patient’s central imbalance and thereafter both are performed. As with most traditional healing modalities, it’s believed the body’s self-healing abilities are activated through the various skills of either needling or other Japanese acupuncture techniques as described below.

A treatment restores whole-body balance and harmony, relieving quite diverse symptoms. Kitahara says concentrating on emotional disturbances can have as great an effect as working on physical symptoms and believes depression, anxiety, panic, trauma and allergies can actually be the cause of physical symptoms. The prime objective is to use the least stimulation to achieve the greatest result.

Often, a five-phase treatment is used with a four-step protocol. Adjunctive techniques can be used within these steps or later to address a patient’s symptoms directly. Advanced meridian therapies involve addressing deficiency-heat or deficiency-cold patterns. This can be more of a specific treatment while still following a four-step protocol.


The immediate effect of Japanese acupuncture for most patients is relief: a lovely energetic sensation or vibration lifting through or off the skin, almost a tingling sensation. Patients can leave a clinic feeling refreshed, balanced and lighter. Some patients may feel stronger sensations for a day or two after as the body adjusts, tonifies and moves energy and blood. Minor symptoms should be alleviated immediately and more chronic conditions should improve over the course of treatments, allowing for interfering factors that may impact on the success of treatments, such as new illness, accident or emotional stressors.

Thinner or no needles

Japanese acupuncturists use thinner or smaller needles and do not penetrate the skin as deeply. This is believed to cause less discomfort and address the fear a lot of people have around needles. “Japanese acupuncture believes body meridians lie just underneath the skin, rather than the Chinese who go deeper into the foundation,” says Kitahara. The needles used in Japanese acupuncture are made from stainless steel, gold, silver, zinc and copper, each metal offering a different benefit for the patient.

Some Japanese acupuncturists employ Toyohari, a sophisticated system of pulse diagnosis and palpitation developed and taught by blind practitioners, which uses non-insertive needle techniques. This is ideal for paediatrics, sensitive patients and needle-phobic people. The core techniques of Toyohari require just a gentle touch or slight indentation of the skin with a soft silver needle. This results in greater comfort for the patient while still revitalising the patient’s ki (vital energy) at a deep level and encouraging the body to heal itself. While it may seem absurd, consider how rubbing a sore part of your body with your hand or fingers can offer relief.

Good practitioners will guide a patient to breathe out for insertion as it is believed the pores are open on the out breath. Though the needles are super-thin, some patients may experience a moment of discomfort on insertion. Any pain usually diminishes quickly. Other normal sensations with the insertion of the needles includes a feeling of warmth, a dull aching or a tingling at the site of insertion or along the associated acupuncture meridian.

Needling techniques

Hinaishin: intradermal needling

Hinaishin are traditional intradermal acupuncture needles that come in lengths ranging from three to eight millimetres and metal types such as gold, silver and steel. Hinaishin are considered tonifying, providing a mild and slow tonification of ki.

Shigo: single point needling

Shigo is the selection of the most active point to use based on the organ clock and a patient’s symptoms. This is generally useful in acute or emergency cases.

Fire needle

The fire needle is used for acute and recent muscle or sinew issues. The muscle meridian paths serve as the body’s first line of defence, keeping pathogenic factors at bay. Found on the surface of the body, they are broad bands that encompass and follow the main meridians.

Hifushin: touching needle

Hifushin is a non-insertive needle technique that can be a root or local treatment. While this technique may appear simple, it can be extremely powerful, allowing strong treatments without an excessive number of points and without the insertion of needles.

Empishin: press tacks

Empishin are press tack needles that are considered to be more sedating. Tacks have a tiny needle that is pressed and taped into the skin. Both are used in conditions ranging from autoimmune disorders to fibromyalgia and treating scar tissue.

Complementary techniques

Extraordinary vessel (ion pumping cords)

Over centuries, Japanese experts developed the art of acupuncture to include old and modern technologies. One of the most ground-breaking is the introduction of ion pumping cords used in conjunction with needling, developed by Yoshio Manaka MD during WWII to treat burns victims, it is said to relieve the pain of first-, second- and third-degree burns within 20 minutes and accelerate the healing process by 80 per cent. A cord is attached to partnered needles for ionic exchange. Often used in root (initial) treatments, it balances a patient’s core energy.

Magnetic ear seeds

Another point of difference from Chinese acupuncture is the use of auricular seeds to keep points stimulated in a patient for up to five days after treatment. Seeds are tiny magnetic balls (1-2mm in diameter) placed strategically on reflexology points in the ear, or larger seeds are taped to other body areas. Seeds are mostly used for pain relief but can also be used to set up polarities. Gold and copper are best for tonification while silver or zinc can be used to disperse ki.

Gua sha

Gua sha is a scraping technique promoting the movement of ki and blood. The procedure uses oil to protect the skin and often feels like a deep massage. Gua sha, most often performed on the back, leaves the skin looking slightly bruised and the patient generally feeling very good. As with cupping, the marks soon resolve on their own.

Kyukaku (cupping)

Cupping is fantastic for releasing muscle tension, moving cold and damp, relieving blood stasis and moving stagnant ki. A controlled dose suction cup allows suction pressure to be adjusted during the treatment so the stimulation of ki and blood flow can be strengthened or weakened as desired. A cup may remain static on a client’s skin, drawing the skin upwards “into the cup” for 1-10 minutes. Small cups are used in Japan for facelifts, employing very light pressure in an upward motion on the face. Sometimes, cupping is applied over an acupuncture needle to address chronic pain. While cupping may leave marks on the skin, they generally fade in a few days.

Manaka wooden hammer

The manaka wooden hammer and peg aligns tempos and frequencies of meridians. It’s applied for conditions ranging from knee pain to headaches, respiratory issues, early stages of a cold, asthma (especially in children) or nasal issues.

Daishin (hammer needling)

Using a hammer made of ebony and a gold needle with a blunt end, the Daishin method can treat all disorders of the body. The abdomen is palpated for indurations or hard areas. Tapping is still performed in sets of 18 using the patient’s pulse or metronome frequencies as a pattern. The back may also be treated by finding areas of pain and using the opposite point on the abdomen.

Hiraku (bloodletting)

The aim of Hiraku is to decrease blood stagnation. After bloodletting, the bleeding is allowed to stop of its own accord. The acupuncture point is then pressed, waiting for the energy to make one complete circulation around the body. Hiraku is essential for resolving stasis of ki and blood in the body. It can be used as an adjunctive technique or as a complete treatment. Cupping with bloodletting is useful for blood stasis and pain.


Moxibustion involves burning herbs and moxa from the chrysanthemum family, either on the head of the needle or against the skin. When moxa is burnt on the needle, it’s also known as warm needling. With proper techniques it’s a pleasant treatment that gives a mild, warming feeling and carries little risk of causing a burn. Moxa warms, increases the circulation of ki and blood, strengthens yang and helps to prevent disease.

Renee Bes

Renee Bes

Renee Bes is an international journalist and author who loves delving into the spiral of energy which keeps our Earth spinning: and believes storytelling with a focus on beloved language and powerful words can be a healing journey. Read more articles on her personal website and blog.

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