How Helen Keller Rescued the Centuries-Old Japanese Medical Legacy of Shiatsu (and how Shiatsu saved Marilyn Monroe’s honeymoon)

Asian medicine has survived war and genocide. In recent times it was almost lost during the spread of communism from China to Vietnam.

Many people don’t know that during the American occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, US President Harry Truman criminalized the practice of Japanese traditional medicine including Shiatsu. How does this all lead to Helen Keller, you might ask, and Marilyn Monroe?

Until the beginning of the 19th century all Japanese physicians were required to learn Anma, which is the practice of diagnosing and treating their clothed patients using touch along the network of energy pathways or meridians.

Around 1650 a Japanese physician named Waichi Sugiyama lost his sight. One can assume that his sudden blindness changed the way he experienced touch. He noticed that certain ways of touching affected the muscles and tendons while other ways of touching entered deeply into the internal organs.

Sugiyama went on to establish many medical schools throughout Japan exclusively for the blind. This medical service has been mostly reserved for blind practitioners in Japan to this day. In the early 20th century the Japanese public began to lose interest in their medical tradition in favor of western medical advances. Anma was considered an old-fashioned folk medicine. In 1925 a practitioner named Tamai Tempaku changed the name to Shiatsu, meaning ‘finger pressure’ in an effort to renew interest.

Fast forward to 1948. President Truman issued a ban on traditional medicine in Japan and many traditional doctors became unemployed, including the blind Shiatsu practitioners.

Helen Keller, the blind-deaf activist for human rights, was beloved by the Japanese people even before the war. She had come to Japan to experience the devastation in Hiroshima. The blind Shiatsu practitioners contacted her and asked for her help. Keller appealed to President Truman and he eventually removed the ban.

In 1954 Marilyn Monroe saunters into the story wearing her legendary sawed-off high heels. She was in Tokyo on her honeymoon with baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. The sex goddess had transfixed the country. She was mobbed everywhere she went, as if she could impart her goddess-like sexiness to all who beheld her.

The truth was Marilyn was plagued by endometriosis on this honeymoon trip. She was overcome by excruciating uterine pain and unable to get to first base.

Hearing of her affliction, the hotel manager called a doctor. Was it a gynecologist, you might assume? No, her thoughtful Japanese host arranged for Marilyn to have Shiatsu with Tokujiro Namikoshi.

According to biographer Carter Wit (japan-zine.com) “Namikoshi entered the room to discover Marilyn lying naked on the bed. As he later recounted to one of his students she was “wearing nothing but Chanel No. 5.” Namikoshi found it hard to concentrate on his work, eventually spreading his handkerchief over the more distracting areas. But within five minutes the pain had dissipated and Monroe was so relaxed that she began to fall asleep.” This was probably the most exciting moment in Namikoshi’s career.

The Shiatsu School of Vermont (shiatsuvt.org) offers certification programs in Zen Shiatsu with world-renowned teachers. SSV also offers workshops in Zen Shiatsu and Thai Massage for continuing education credits. Overnight accommodations in the lovely town of Brattleboro, Vermont are included in tuition.

Shiatsu is a deeply relaxing and healing form of bodywork therapy that works on four levels of the body: the muscles and tendons, the internal organs, the emotional landscape, and by enhancing spiritual connection. Shiatsu has the same range of benefits as Acupuncture and Massage and is achieved entirely through touch. Techniques include abdominal assessment, joint rotations, stretches, rocking, and finger and palm pressure. It is done fully clothed on a comfortable mat on the floor or on a massage table.​​ ​A Shiatsu session brings healing to both the practitioner and the client.


Article by Marjorie Pivar, Director of the Shiatsu School of Vermont and author of Fourth Uncle in the Mountain: The Remarkable Legacy of a Buddhist Itinerant Doctor in Vietnam, (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006).