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Ampuku at the Heart of Shiatsu

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

Shiatsu Therapy Association of Australia Journal - Spring 2022

Shiatsu Society Journal UK - Winter 2021 - by Philippe Vandenabeele

“Every living being that resides in the cosmos is animated by the ceaseless flow of Ki, or life force. Because of this, even a small degree of stagnation can cause illness or, in the case of blockage, may cause death.” the Ampuku Zukai

My personal journey with Ampuku started when I began learning Shiatsu. More precisely, there was one technique on the Hara that was included in the first Shiatsu kata that especially caught my attention. Later, I learned more about the Hara, its importance for our overall well-being, and its significance in the Japanese classical arts. I was also informed that there were practitioners in Japan who exclusively treated the Hara and that this treatment was called Ampuku. During my initial Shiatsu training I spend considerable time learning Hara diagnosis but to my big surprise there was little time devoted to actually directly treating the Hara.

I became a certified Shiatsu practitioner with a busy practice, doing my best to help my patients. At the same time I was still struggling to make any sense of the Hara diagnosis I had been learning. There was also something frustrating me even more. Somewhere I knew I was missing some essential techniques to more effectively work with Shiatsu. Somewhere in time those techniques had existed but I hadn’t yet found someone who could teach me them. I had to find out where I could learn more about those important techniques.

Finally, it was in the ‘Zen Shiatsu‘ book by Shizuto Masunaga that I found several references where the author stressed the importance of Ampuku in the Shiatsu practice. However in the explanations provided emphasized on mainly presenting the reader with how to perform Hara diagnosis but almost nothing on the actual Ampuku techniques themselves. What I retained from reading Masunaga’s book and from my Shiatsu education was that those Ampuku techniques were very important to Shiatsu practice but that they are considered “highly sophisticated and difficult to learn”. Masunaga wrote that “Ampuku is a very important part of Shiatsu and can contribute enormously toward helping the critically ill and those patients who require calm but penetrating manipulation. Ampuku therapy not only allows the patient to remain tranquil, it also rehabilitates the patient’s internal functioning”. Reading this triggered my imagination and curiosity and I wanted to know even more.

In 1995, I visited Thailand on my way to do a 3-month intensive course in Australia. In Thailand I visited the newly opened Tao Garden from the Daoist Master Mantak Chia and got hold of his then recently published book on Chi Nei Tsang. I had finally found more information about how to directly treat the abdomen. During my stay in Australia I devoured that book and decided that I had to travel back to Thailand on my way back to Europe from Australia, to see if I could learn more. On my return in Chiang Mai I went looking for practitioners who could teach me more. I ended up staying 6 months absorbing all the wisdom I could from the highly skilled practitioners I met there for whom the body and especially the belly had no secret. When I returned to Europe I relocated to Sweden and opened a Shiatsu practice in Stockholm. Incorporating my newly acquired Chi Nei Tsang techniques enabled me to spend more time freeing and strengthening my patient’s bellies resulting in better and more lasting results. One more importing benefit of spending more time treating the belly I noticed was that Hara diagnosis started to make more sense to me. At last it became easier to read the Kyo and Jitsu in my patients’ bellies!

Under the guidance of Dirk Oellibrandt, who had been one of my Shiatsu teachers back in Belgium and who regularly visited Scandinavia to teach Shin Tai and Shiatsu, I continued my studies. Later, I became the director for his bodywork school in Sweden. Dirk happened to be also a very experienced Chi Nei Tsang teacher and thanks to his many connections I was able to invite teachers like Mantak Chia, Henny Eleonora, the osteopath and fascia therapist Frans Deprez, Hilde Verhulst and Helga Wohlmutter to Sweden. The Belgian osteopath Helga Wohlmutter came and gave an amazing Chi Nei Tsang education in our school. Helga’s subtle and profound work has inspired me a lot and has helped me to see abdominal work in an entirely different way. It made me start exploring the world of Visceral Osteopathy and the work of the French osteopath Jean-Pierre Barral and the many talented teachers of the Barral Institute.

Although I had found how to more effectively help my patients and had learned different approaches, alternative maps, to see and treat the belly, I still wanted to learn the Ampuku techniques from the Shiatsu tradition. At the Iokai Shiatsu School in Tokyo I learned that Masunaga had published more books. Some that were not available in English. Among them, his magnus opus "Keiraku to Shiatsu", that has several longer references on the “Ampuku Zukai”, confirmed me that I was on the right track. In the "Keiraku to Shiatsu" Masunaga refers, at length, to the “Ampuku Zukai” from 1827 as the classic of what would later form the basis of Shiatsu. Masunaga identified himself very much with this classic’s author who in the late Edo period like Masunaga in the 1960’s wanted to restore the deeper value, and in his eye’s the true meaning of Shiatsu and diagnosis rooted in the East Asian Medicine tradition. Masunaga went so far in his admiration for the Ampuku Zukai that he republished the in the Meiji period completely redrawn and in more accessible language written 1887 second edition of the Ampuku Zukai and wrote an introduction to it.

When I, at last, got hold of a copy of the 1827 first edition of the Ampuku Zukai and had found practitioners who could demonstrate the techniques contained in this late Edo book I could finally start to learn more Ampuku. After some years I also found the academics who could help me to make sense of the old style in which it was written and its subtleties, starting the long process of translating and attempting to understand this old and important text. I am happy to say that in November 2020 I was finally able with the invaluable help of my wife Hiroko to make available the first complete translation of the Ampuku Zukai in the English language. In this book the reader will find the images from the original first edition by Ota Shinsai. Included in the book are also the translations of the chapters on Fukushin and Ampuku contained in the Anma Tebiki; another important classic in the history of manual therapy in Japan.

Now I want to share with you the reader a few things I learned during my Ampuku journey:

- Ampuku involves the whole body: Contrary to what I had been told I was surprised to discover that although there is a special emphasis on the abdominal work, Ampuku treats the entire body. This becomes clear when reading the Ampuku Zukai. What is contained in this classic - and this before we come to the chapter on the actual abdominal work – are an explanation about the 3 groups of techniques used over the whole body together with illustrations of practitioners treating the joints in the arm, leg and feet. After that come the different chapters describing the Kata’s or protocols on how to treat the full body in prone, supine and side positions before the book proceeds with the techniques on treating the abdomen. What is also important to stress is that those techniques are linked to and are seen as important as the actual abdominal work. Once the practitioner has become experienced he or she doesn’t need to follow the order that is presented in the book. The author tells us also how to work the belly and the places in the belly where there may be a lack or excess of ki energy together with treating the corresponding areas on the back. This together with what I have learned from the practitioners I studied with proved to me that Ampuku is truly wholistic treatment involving the whole body.

- There are 13 Ampuku techniques at the core of the Ampuku Zukai. In the chapter on the Hara/abdominal work each of the 13 techniques receives its own illustration and separate explanation. What is interesting to note is that the first two techniques, Bunpai and Bunroku, are techniques to free the chest. They can be respectively translated as “Segment and expand the chest” and “Divide and expand the left and right sides of the ribcage”. Their purpose in the treatment is to release tensions in the ribcage and through that help release the diaphragm before we as practitioners can more easily address the Hara. In this way augmenting the efficacy of the techniques performed on the abdomen. Here again this shows clearly that Ampuku is a treatment of the whole body not just the belly.

- There are two Ampuku Classics: Although I had mainly been focusing on the Ampuku Zukai I became aware of the fact that there was in the same late Edo-period another book that had been written on the subject of bodywork (more specifically on Anma). It took me a while before I took a closer look at this other classic written by Fuijibayashi Ryohaku entitled the ‘Anma Tebiki’ or ‘An Illustrated guide to the Art of Anma’. When I read the Anma Tebiki I became aware that it contained Ampuku techniques! Suddenly I had not one but two sources I needed to investigate.

At the core of the Anma Tebiki there are 17 Ampuku techniques that are very similar to the once found in the Ampuku Zukai. Some of the techniques described even have the same name. However they are not necessarily the same techniques. Some other descriptions in the Anma Tebiki help one to better understand or give another perspective to the technics described in Ampuku Zukai. The chapter from the Anma Tebiki on the Ampuku techniques is preceded by an illustrated chapter on Fukushin.

The chapter on Hara diagnosis or Fukushin states that the practitioner “after having learned Doin/Healing massage should learn the techniques of Ampuku” and that “even if one’s Doin technique is excellent, no intended outcome can be expected without knowledge of the the illnesses which occur inside the belly “. The introduction to the chapter on Ampuku went on to say: “Once the practitioner has understood the illness inside the belly, by studying the previous illustrations that show how to perform Fukushin, they should practice Ampuku to cure those illnesses.” There is also a severe warning, “However, if the practitioner is not skilled enough, it will damage organs rather than healing them. Ampuku must be applied only after an elaborate, unhurried and thorough training.” This warning is still valid! Ampuku can not be soley learned from books.

- By the mid 1800’s the Ampuku Zukai made it to London!

Since this article is for the British Shiatsu Journal. I want to share this amazing story that few people in our community may be aware of. At least I wasn’t. It is taken from the introduction to the second edition of the Ampuku Zukai, as mentioned before it got published 1887:

“There was once a man from America staying in Yokohama. He hired a doin-ampukushi and went back to his country with the massager. Back home, the American had his massager give those treatments to other Americans, who were very impressed by his techniques. Since then, medical professionals in Europe have been quite interested in Japanese way of massaging.

Totsuka Kankai, a Japanese Surgeon General, at St. Thomas Hospital in London, wrote to Kumaya Kan, a naval surgeon living in Japan, and asked him for books or publications about Japanese chiropractic and massage techniques. Mr. Kumaya looked for them throughout Japan only to find it was impossible to find many, as there were few written documents on those treatments. It was unfortunate that we did not have enough written material about those treatments, which are part of our traditional medicine and also a fundamental knowledge for medical practitioners in Japan.

One day Mr. Kumaya happened to have a chance to visit Saito Yoshizo, a practitioner, and told him about the event. Hearing the story, Mr. Saito got extremely disappointed and said, “It is a pity there are few books available. Perhaps the treatment is going to disappear. And yet, I feel honored to hear our skills are appreciated abroad.” After the conversation, he gave Mr. Kumaya a book called Ampuku Zukai, which he had kept for himself. Mr. Kumaya then immediately shipped this manual to London.”

There is much more that can be said, many more people and many more books I should have mentioned but I hope this brief introduction to the world of Ampuku has made the reader interested to learn more about Ampuku and the roots of Shiatsu.

For me personally my engagement with the classics of Shiatsu has given me more trust in the depth and efficacy of our manual medicine. Thank you for your attention.

Philippe Vandenabeele is a senior Shiatsu practitioner based in Fukuoka, Japan.

For those interested to learn more about Ampuku, Philippe’s book ‘Ampuku Abdominal Acupressure: The Classics at the Heart of Japanese Bodywork' is available through Amazon.

Philippe also offers an online Ampuku course and once a year he visits Europe to teach workshops. He also offers intensive courses and private tuition for small groups at his school in Fukuoka. Check his website for the latest information:

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