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Japanese people explained! [Chapter 1] What is acupuncture?

I have been writing this blog for several years. I was born and raised in Japan by an Egyptian mother and a Japanese father. Then I moved to live abroad. I have lived in France (Angers and Paris), New York, London, Hong Kong, and now I live in Belgium. My blog is written in Japanese and talks about my experience abroad.

I have lived out of Japan for close to 10 years now. The country seems so far away and the only news that we see about Japan are the earthquakes, Fukushima radiation and some polite people living on this piece of island far far east.

However, the population of Japan is over 10 times bigger than Belgium’s, twice the size of France’s or England’s. It is not a small country. So, it must be more than sushi and sumo.

But I must admit the country is full of mystery. We do not have enough information for non-Japanese people to really understand the characteristics, culture and way of life there.

Therefore, I thought I could help to explain some of my favorite Japan-related subjects to give you a better understanding of Japan and Japanese people.

I will be writing about different themes every chapter.

[Chapter 1] What is acupuncture?

[Chapter 2] The hot springs and tattoo

[Chapter 3] Education in Japan

[Chapter 4] Work ethics

[Chapter 5] The vacation and weekends

[Chapter 6] The food culture

[Chapter 7] I am Japanese but can never be one. Views of foreigners raised in Japan

For the very first post, I would like to talk about the culture of relaxation and massages in Japan.

A recent study (in Japanese) claims that over 70% of the Japanese population suffers from shoulder, higher and lower back pain. The first thing I realized living in Europe is that no one, or at least very few people, seem to suffer from similar symptoms.

Higher back or shoulder pain is called KATAKORI (肩こり) and it’s considered the “country’s top illness”- no joke.

It’s probably related to longer working hours, higher stress, longer commutes and/or lack of exercise.

So, when you stroll around the city you will realize there are many massage places. I am not talking about sexual massages (they do have many places like that too) but chiropractic or osteopathic treatments, or basic massages for relaxation. It is very affordable, between 30-50$USD per one-hour session.

And another popular form of massage therapy is acupuncture.

So here we will start with the first question:

[Chapter 1] What is acupuncture?

Google gives the following definition




  1. a system of complementary medicine in which fine needles are inserted in the skin at specific points along what are considered to be lines of energy (meridians), used in the treatment of various physical and mental conditions.


To practice acupuncture in Japan, you will need to train 2 years full time and pass a national exam of “shinkyu” – Shin(鍼) means “needle,” and kyu (灸) is dried mugwort which you place on your skin and burn.

The acupuncturist can stick a needle in your body and also burn dried mugwort bits on your body, and they have a national exam for that. That just sounds outright nuts.

The idea of Shikyu is by inserting a harmful needle or giving yourself a burn to the area where you feel pain, your white bloodcells will move towards the area, and that will result a circulation of blood to the pain area. When the blood flows, your immune system functions better and will try to remove the cause of pain from your body.

It sounds like a “hair of the dog” cure. When you have a hangover, if you put more alcohol into your body you’ll feel better.

The needle they use is very thin and you won’t really feel any pain. It is different from the Chinese acupuncture where the needle is slightly thicker than the Japanese ones.

It is also believed that there are pressure points for different symptoms throughout your hands, feet and head. For example, if you have indigestions, or stomach problems, you can press somewhere in your hands or feet that can help. This is the idea of reflexology which we see all around the world nowadays.

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The fundamental difference between Eastern medicine such as Shinkyu and Western medicine is that Western medicine/ drugs are designed to attack the “illness” in your body, or remove it by surgical procedure.

Eastern medicine tries to balance your body, using the “yin and yang”. They have an idea that if the balance of Yin (the dark, or coolness) and Yang (the heat) is off-balance, you become sick. For example, if the Yang is stronger than the Yin (that is, your body contains more heat or has a fever), something is inflamed. And if the Yin is stronger than Yang (the area of body is cold) you can say that your blood is not circulating properly.

Some reflexologists will assess your imbalances by the stiffness of pressure points in your foot. I was once told that my kidney was fatigued and so was my stomach. My job consists of lots of drinking and eating with clients so that sort of made sense.

Do I personally believe in acupuncture?

My answer is “yes.”

Not just because my brother is an acupuncturist and I’m worried if I say “no” he will probably kill me with his needles, but I do genuinely feel it works.

I once woke up with a bad toothache on a Sunday morning. It is the worst day of the week to have a toothache because dentists are generally closed on Sundays.

My brother came home after lunch and I asked him if he could do anything. So, he stuck a needle in my hand between my thumb and index finger, and another one in my jaw. The pain went away and he told me that he had numbed my nerve for about 24 hours. So, I would still have to see someone the next day.

And he was right, because I didn’t feel any pain on Monday morning. I didn’t book an appointment but in the afternoon the pain came back so I had to call my dentist.

Acupuncture is becoming more and more popular in Europe, but there are no official exams or regulations to open up your own practice. You could take a weekend course and start sticking needles into someone’s body if you wanted to.

I have suffered from backaches since I was 16. And I think I narrowed it down to this: most of the pain is muscle stiffness, or a muscle not functioning in a way it should- causing other parts of the muscle to compensate, which causes another pain.

So, you have to either train the muscle that’s not doing its job, or soften the muscle that’s too stiff.

The interesting thing is that every part of your body is connected. And often your lower back pain might come from elsewhere, such as the stiffness of your glutes, or hip joints.

To give you an example, an acupuncturist once told me, by putting an Okyu (dried mugwort ) and burn the heal of your foot, it seems to release the muscle around your lower back.

It is a stressful world with media and news that makes us feel hopeless. The news might not always even be true! Yes, fake news!

I’d like to say the Japanese knows how to relax their body in a very short time, so they can move on to the next day and feel better, at least about their pain. The next chapter will be touching apon another great relaxation activity you can try in Japan: hot springs.

#acupuncture #Japan #japanese

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