The two most recognised names in the shiatsu world, Tokujiro Namikoshi and Shizuto Masunaga, were both extremely gifted practitioners. Contemporaries of the same era, their success as practitioners and teachers has set the standard for shiatsu in Japan and throughout the world. Their success came primarily from their ability as practitioners. As teachers they both were less effective in conveying their clinical ability to students. Why?
Namikoshi and Masunaga were both introduced to manual therapies at young ages. Both learnt their shiatsu through apprenticeship style study with a master for a number of years, (although Masunaga did attend Namikoshi’s college in Tokyo to gain a formal licence). Before the Second World War, the standard for a shiatsu qualification in Japan was a 5-year apprenticeship. The traditional style of studying a profession or art in most cultures has ever been through close contact with a teacher for an extended time. Trust in a teacher’s ability to know the students’ progress and talent has always been a key ingredient in this process. This form of learning is not usually linear, there is no set curriculum, and often no set duration. (I studied for a time with a teacher in a small town outside of Kyoto who had himself apprenticed for 7 years before setting up his own practice.) It is also flexible and tailored to the ability of the student.
As teachers, the problem for both Tokujiro Namikoshi and Shizuto Masunaga was the amount of students that wanted to study with them. It was, and still is, simply impossible for a single teacher to give the required time to more than a few students at a time. For this reason, although they both espoused a wish to teach small groups, both in fact ended up with a formalized teaching system that did not reflect their own style of practice. The institutionalization of the teaching system is questionable for any practical learning, but for an art such as shiatsu it provides a faint shadow of the richness available in a one-on-one relationship between teacher and student.
When we take shiatsu learning into the institution, create a formula that asks all student to conform to it, prescribe a timeline and duration, and set mile stones of achievement that are standardized; it is akin to creating a factory production line. The ability to feel, and discern what is felt, has to take precedence over the ability to follow a prescribed sequence and retain intellectual knowledge. The teaching of shiatsu in the institutional model is detrimental to the true expression of the art. To honour the art of shiatsu we need to find a way back to a more traditional style of teaching. There is a way, but we will be required to break free of the bureaucratic constraints that place theory above quality of touch.
In my next article I will explore a path back to traditional style learning.
Honour the art