Japanese Acupuncture and Moxibustion (Online)

JAM  2011;Vol.7(1):1-14

Japanese Acupuncture and Moxibustion in Europe from the 16th to 18th Centuries

Wolfgang Michel
Professor emeritus, Kyushu University


Despite China's cultural impact on Japan, Japanese physicians used the medical knowledge they adopted from their great neighbor with surprising independence. Being more open to interactions with Westerners, even after the adoption of a semi-seclusion policy in 1639, Japan played a major role in the early transmission of knowledge of acupuncture and moxibustion to Europe.
The first reports concerning traditional Far Eastern medicine by Europeans came from 16 th-century Japan, where Jesuit missionaries accumulated considerable expertise in acupuncture, moxibustion, pulse feeling, and materia medica. Their observations were dispersed among a variety of letters, reports, "historias", and dictionaries, and they had no significant impact on European readers.
Medical interactions in Japan changed significantly in 1641 with the relocation of the Dutch trading post from Hirado to Dejima (Nagasaki). Establishing a permanent position for a surgeon/physician laid the foundations for continuous exchange between Japanese physicians and their Westerns colleagues.
European scholarly interest in moxibustion began with a booklet by Hermann Buschoff, a Dutch clergyman in Batavia, about a remedy for Podagra that he called Moxa (in Japanese, mogusa). Buschoff found it difficult to understand the physiological principles underlying his miracle cure. After serious debate in the German Academy of Natural Science, Andreas Cleyer, a licensed physician and trading post chief in Japan, clarified the botanical background and the production methods of Moxa. However, since Western physicians found themselves unable to understand Eastern pathology, they inevitably looked for parallels in their own tradition and in Egyptian medicine. After Engelbert Kaempfer demonstrated the broad range of applications Moxa had in Japan, it was assimilated as a remedy for gout, following the old Western principle of "revulsion."
Following the scattered earlier remarks by Portuguese Jesuits, Willem ten Rhijne's article on acupuncture marked the beginning of scholarly discussions on the art of needling. He and his eminent successor at Dejima, Kaempfer, presented recent Japanese inventions, such as the guide tube needle and the tapping needle, which were not known in China. The guide tube needle was a simple technical improvement compared to previous free hand needling and the tapping needle was used as part of a new therapeutic concept that ignored the Chinese meridians (keiraku). Both highly educated physicians were unable to overcome the language barrier and depended on Japanese interpreters with limited knowledge of Dutch. Thus meridians were considered to be blood vessels, ki became "vapor" or "wind" (flatus), and the accumulation of ki in the abdominal area seemed to be a kind of colic. The use of needles in order to release such "winds" from the intestines was considered to be dangerous and inevitably led to rejection by Western medical authorities.

Key words: Intercultural exchange, East-West medical exchange, Japanese acupuncture and moxibustion, Moxa, Dejima physicians, early modern medicine

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