The history of amma, traditional Japanese massage, dates back 5,000 years to the northern regions of China and the beginning of Chinese medical philosophy. In the United States today, amma continues to grow and evolve as a versatile and effective contemporary style of massage.


The two Chinese characters pronounced anmo mean « to calm by rubbing ». The Japanese pronounce the same two characters amma, which is sometimes spelled anma. Japanese amma is the foundation of all forms of acupressure massage including the modern-day forms of shiatsu.
   Amma originated in the tradition of Chinese medicine. It was first developed in the northern region of China in the barren lands north of the Yellow River. The inhabitants of this area used acupuncture, moxibustion and anmo, that is, manual methods, to provide cures (Serizawa, 1984. Over many years of practice and experience with massage, acupuncture, and moxa, the Chinese people came to identify the points of the body where such therapy produces maximum effects. Eventually these points, called tsubo or acupressure points, were documented together with the 14 major meridians or channels of energy that emerged from the patterns created by the tsubos (Serizawa, 1976, p.30). Today we know this system of meridians and acupressure points as the energetic anatomy of traditional Chinese medicine.
   Anmo was brought to Japan by way of the Korean peninsula at the beginning of the Asuka period in the sixth century. It was an integral part of the unified system of Chinese medicine, which the Japanese call Kampo, « the Chinese way (Serizawa 1972,pp.14-15 ; Serizawa, 1984). The Japanese assimilated the Chinese medical philosophy into their own culture, and amma was born as a therapeutic art form. By 701 Taiho Law referred to the new massage of Japan with the mention of « amma experts » (Joya, 1958, p.61).
   Apart from the knowledge that amma originated in ancient China, the literature that is available in English is very sketchy on the history of amma in Japan until the Edo Period in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. There are a few references that suggest that the percetion of amma as a form of medical intervention changed from time to time. According to Yamamoto and McCarty, amma was recognized by the official medica l authorities during the early part of the Nara Period (672-707 C.E.). Amma apparently lost its popularity for a time, but experienced a revival in the Edo Period (1603-1857 C.E.) (Joya, 1958, p.61). Serizawa (1972) writes that kampo, of which amma was very much a part, was the main medical stream in Japan from the time it was introduced until the end of the Edo Period (p.2).
   Most of the literature agrees that during these 1,000 years, amma developed into a highly specilized style of massage involving complex techniaues, which encompassed a myriad of pressing, stroking, stretching, and percussive manipulations with the thumbs, fingers, arms, elbows, and knees to stimulate points along the &4 major meridians of the body.
   Amma and kampo reached their peak of popularity in the Edo period. During this time, students of medicine were required to study amma to understand and become familiar with the structure and function of the energetic anatomy of the body. Masunaga relates that « their training in this type of manual therapy enabled them to accurately diagnose and administer Chinese herbal meicine as well as locate the tsubos…easily for acunpuncture treatments » (1977,p.9).
   By the end of the Edo period, two historically significant changes occured in Japan that dramatically altered both the way amma was taught and the peopl’s perception of kampo and amm. The first event occured early in the nineteenth century when the Shogunate authorities decreed that blind persons assume the job of masseur and acupuncturist as a welfare measure (Serizawa, 1984, p.15). As a result, many schools were created, and hight-ranking amma practitioners enjoyed public respect and were honored by the court and government. However, once the schools of amma began training blind students, amma’s status as a healing art gradually began to suffer because it was perceived that « blind people were at a disadvantage in receiving formal study in diagnosis and treatment » (Masunaga, 1977.p.10). As part of its program to reserve amma as a profession for the blind, the government reauired that all the ammas, the name given to people wh practiced amma, be licensed. The story goes that to avoid these regulations many therapits already in practive changed the name of their type of treatment. Thus, the term shiatsu came into use (Masunaga, 1977,p.9).
   The second change occurred during the Meiji restoration (1868 C.E.) and the modernization of Japan. Western medicine began to influence Japanese medical practices. Serizawa (1976) reports that « Western medical science as known in many and Holland began to influence Japanese thought, especially because of its surgival methods and its effectiveness against epidemics » (p.30). Eventually, kampo was eclipsed by Western medicine, and misconceptions about amma discredited it in Japan.
   Consequently, by the beginning of the 1900s kampo and amma had become known as « folk medicine » and amma erroneously associated only with pleasure and comfort. Amma became known as a blind person’s profession, and as a result of prejudice, the word amma in Japan acquired some stigma as a lowly profession (Serizawa, 1984).
   At the outbreak of World War II, over 90% of the people practicing amma in Japan were blind. At the end of the war, General Mac Arthur went into Japan and banned the traditional healing arts of kampo and amma. This left many hundreds of ammas out of work with no real prospects for a livelihoo. The result was an epidemic of suicides among the amma practitioners. Helen Keller was informed of this tragedy and wrote to President Truman asking him to rescind the order (Ohashi, 1976). He finally did, but the damage had been done. Amma and the traditional healing arts of Japan were being further overshadowed by Western medical science.
   Joya writes in her book, Things Japanese, « Most amma are still blind people. Formerly they used to blow a small flute as they went about, and the people used to call them in as they heard the sounds. However, except in some rural districts, this amma flute is no longer heard » (1958, p.61).
   Interestingly enough, of the many schools that teach massage in Japan today, all but two teach amma. However, most people born after World War II have never heard the word amma in reference to massage. In 1940, Torujiro Namikoshi opened the Japan Shiatsu School in Tokyo, which was licensed by the government in 1957. As a result Namikoshi’s marketing skills in the late 1940s and ‘50s, »shiatsu » has become the word most commonly used to refer to massage in Japan. Shiatsu was recognized by the Japanese government as a style of massage separate from amma in 1964. The Director of the Shiatsu Massage School of California in Snta Monia, Do Ann Kaneko, told this author that many of the massage practitioners doing massage in Japan today do bothe the amma and shiatsu, and call it shiatsu.


   Torujiro Namikoshi introduced Japanese massage to the United States when he brought his style of shiatsu here in the 1950s. In 1953, he brought this son, Toru, with him. Toru Namikoshi spent seven years in the United States introducing shiatsu to students at the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, Torujiro went on to Hawaii to open a massage school. In 1969, Torujiro wrote his first book, Health and Vitality at Your Fingertips, Shiatsu in English, and distributed it in the United States, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. This book was later translated into several other languages under the name Japanese Finger-Pressure Therapy, Shiatsu (1969) and distributed all over the world. Namikoshi’s style of shiatsu was the primary style of Japanese massage taught in the United States until the 1960s. During the 1970s, a number of Japanese practitioners brought their styles of shiatsu to the United States, including DoAnn Kaneko, who brought a form called Amma Shiatsu ; Shizuto Masunaga, who developed Zen Shiatsu, ; Shizuko Yamamoto, who developed Barefoot Shiatsu ; and Wataru Ohashi, who developed Ohashiatsu.
   Namikoshi’s style of shiatsu involved the least complex of the amma techniques (finger, thumb, and palm pressure), and it did not include the traditionnal meridian system of amma. Sensitive to the twentieth-century enthusiasm for Western scientific medicine throughout the world, Namikoshi superimposed his points over Western structural anatomy. Toru Namikoshi details this system with diagrams in The Complete Book of Shiatsu Therapy (1981).
   Shizuto Masunaga developed his own meridian system, which is described in his book Zen Shiatsu (1977). His student, Wataru Ohashi, returned to the original traditional Chinese meridian system, which he details in Do-It-Yourself Shiatsu (1976). Shizuto Yamamoto does not include a map of their meridians system in her book nor does she include acupressure points in her complete shiatsu treatment. She does, however, suggest a list of acupoints for treating common problems. Mr. Kaneko follows the traditional Chinese meridian system and includes many of the more complicated techniques of amma in his style of shiatsu. As you can see, when someone says, « I do shiatsu », they may be speaking about any one of a number of different forms of this ancient healing art.
   Traditional amma was first formally introduced to the United States in 1971, with the opening of Kabuki Hot Springs in Japantown, San Francisco, California. Designed as a traditional Japanese spa, Kabuki Hot Springs employed sighted amma practitioners who had been trained in Japan and brought to the United States to work in the new spa. By 1977, the owners of the Hot Springs wanted to develop a local source of qualified practitioners. They asked Takashi Nakamura, a practitioner from the Kensai School of Massage, Acupuncture, Moxa, and Cautery in Osaka, Japan, to open a school in San Francisco. Although he taught amma, the school was called the Kabuki Shiatsu School of Massage.
   Nakamura developed a highly choreographed one-hour, full-body table sequence using over 25 different hand and arm techniques on over 140 tsubo, or acupoints. He taught this sequenc in the way that he had been taught in Japan. He demonstrated a small portion of the sequence in the way that he had been taught in Japan. He demonstrated a small portion of the sequence on each student, they then practiced on one another, and then each student demonstrated his or her ability to repeat that segment on Nakamura. The entire sequence was taught this way,each piece building on the next. By teaching this form appropriate for a spa setting and modeling how the amma forms were taught in Japan, Takashi Nakamura helped to further an understanding of the amma tradition in the United States. Nakamura returned to Japan in 1981, after teaching his student, David Palmer, how to teach the amma spa form.
   Palmer reopened the school in 1982. Recognizing the significance of the amma tradition and how it differed from the way shiatsu was being taught and practived in the United States, he renamed the school The Amma Institute of Traditional Japanese Massage. In an attempt to make skilled touch more accessible in the United States, Palmer adapted the last few minutes of the one-hour full-body spa sequence and created a 15-minute upper-body form for clients seated in a chair. The 15-minute chair form had made receiving amma appears safe, convenient, and affordable. Massage practitioners can once again bring their service out to the people like the blind ammas of Japan were doing over 80 years ago. In December of 1988, Palmer left The Amma Institute to develop the Skilled Touch Institute of Chair Massage. Each year his trainers introduce the techniques of Japanese massage to hundreds of professional bodyworkers.