Shiatsu is badly misunderstood in North America. Most of us know what Swedish massage is — soothing strokes to enhance circulation with occasional deep tissue work to get into deeper layers and break up adhesions. Shiatsu also improves circulation and releases blockages, but it achieves this through stillness and precision rather than through gliding and movement.

Shiatsu is compression massage, done without oil. The practitioner uses their hands, forearms, elbows, knees and feet to apply sustained pressure. Swedish massage uses the practitioner’s hands and forearms, and oil is applied to the receiver’s skin.

Swedish massage has benefitted from the luxurious image of spas and the perceived sensual indulgence of hot stones, tanned bodies and swaying palm trees. Shiatsu, by contrast, suffers from a mom-and-pop, down and dirty image in most North Americans’ eyes. Notable exceptions are the five-star Japanese spas found in Beverly Hills and Santa Fe.

To make matters worse for shiatsu’s image, there is a lack of consistency in shiatsu teaching. The big two shiatsu teachers of the twentieth century — Namikoshi and Masunaga — have fallen prey to misunderstanding as their methods have spread around the world. Namikoshi’s shiatsu has been criticized as “typewriter shiatsu,” with mechanical, dogged-looking practitioners wearing out their thumbs doing the same formulaic routine again and again, following a grid-like map of points. Masunaga’s Zen shiatsu has fared even worse, with a faction of English-speaking teachers latching onto the Chinese meridian-based theory he proposed in one of his books, and turning this half-baked theory into the central tenet of Zen shiatsu**. Because of their influence, Shiatsu today is often erroneously described as “acupuncture without needles” or “Traditional Chinese Medicine”. In fact, while there are definitely influences from traditional Asian medicine, shiatsu is rather simple and comes down to three basic instructions: vertical pressure, sustained pressure and concentration.

Marketing Swedish massage to North Americans is working — there’s been an explosion of massage franchises such as Massage Envy and massage is considered a healthy and necessary indulgence. Shiatsu has a steeper road to climb. If North American shiatsu practitioners can build a reputation as effective deep tissue therapists rather than as watered-down Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners, shiatsu might become well appreciated and sought after.

**Further reading:

Shiatsu and the Myth of Meridians by Alice Whieldon

Tao Shiatsu and Revolution in Oriental Medicine by Ryokyu Endo

Sei-Ki: Life in Resonance — The Secret Art of Shiatsu by Akinobu Kishi