(from Tokyo Time Out)

by Blake More

Blind acupuncture is a nationally recognized practice that has openly existed in Japan since the early Edo Period (1603-1867). Currently, 30 percent of the roughly 90,000 licensed acupuncturists in Japan are blind. These visually challenged are found nationwide¾mixed among the sighted at clinics and hospitals, carrying out private practices, and passing on their skills to others like themselves in special schools for the blind. They hold the same licenses, earn the same wages, and charge the same fees. They even have Zenshinshikai, a national association for blind acupuncturists, to set future agendas and provide a buffer against possible discrimination.

Insiders believe that blind acupuncturists have been able to carve out such a lasting niche for themselves because those without sight must develop their senses in ways people with 20/20 vision rarely appreciate. When this heightened awareness is coupled with acupuncture, it seems logical that a blind acupuncturist may be able to perceive things that a sighted practitioner might overlook¾ a big plus when you consider that acupuncturists never see the organs they're supposed to be dealing with in the first place.

Tomoyuki Hoshiyama, a blind acupuncturist who now teaches at the Hiratsuka School for the Blind in Hiratsuka City south of Tokyo, puts it this way, "One of the most interesting things I discovered by practicing acupuncture was that, after a while, the needle became an extension of my body. It was like my fingers grew longer so I could put them inside and get a better idea of what was happening¾ kind of like reading Braille, but it is the body that I read."

Hoshiyama, a gentle but commanding presence in his mid-thirties, began studying acupuncture when he was 19, needling his parents for homework in order to perfect his technique¾ a sacrifice he describes as "painful for them, difficult for me." He says he went into teaching five years ago because he wanted to help other blind people make positive contributions to society. "The process of treating, involves me and another patent, but by teaching, the person I have taught can then treat someone else and the influence will spread on a much larger scale. Plus, I believe that by example¾ for instance when my students see that I, a blind person, can go to America or give a lecture in England¾ I provide proof that they too can succeed."

Hoshiyama's wife of two months, Yoko Hoshiyama also teaches acupuncture to blind students. For the last 11 years, she has been working at her famous alma mater, Japanís Tscuba National School for the Blind. One of 14 acupuncture teachers instructing a student body of 50, Yoko says she got into acupuncture for the same reason most blind people do¾ necessity. "But then, while I was in the clinical aspect of my studies, I began to understand the benefits of acupuncture. As I watched people experiencing good results, I decided that I wanted to study harder and improve my technique so I could offer even more."

Although satisfied with their jobs, both Yoko and Hoshiyama express frustration over the fact that, like other's who went to blind schools all their lives, they chose acupuncture more because it was the thing to do rather than because it was their life-long dream. Explains Yoko, "As blind people, we have few occupations available to us, so almost all blind students think about acupuncture at one time or another, particularly if they hope to be productive members of society. Even today, the only proven avenues we have are acupuncture, massage, and music."

"Since we don't read print letters or a computer screen, our differences are rarely acknowledged, plus society doesnít do much to help us find other ways to support ourselves," adds Hoshiyama, who then smiles broadly before going on. "Yes, we know we are lucky because we have acupuncture, but there is a catch. Blind people have always had three professions to fall back on, yet we haven't been encouraged to develop in other useful areas. So, this is a bit of a handicap. Whereas in America, where there hasn't necessarily been one particular job a blind person can do, which means people have an open range of possibilities to do what they want. It would be nice if there was a mix, to have the option of a traditional job but also be open to pursue any career that sounds appealing."


Lifting The Blind

Although the artistic and cultural feats of the Edo period appear in texts throughout the world, the erotic proclivities of the time aren't generally covered in scholarly analyses¾nor were its sexually transmitted diseases. Yet as author Nicolas Bornoff points out in The Pink Samurai, sexual pleasure reached a new climax towards the middle of this era, turning countryís public mating centers and glistening red light districts into a national gonorrhea epidemic. And since rampant sexuality was the norm rather than the exception, few households were untouched. Soon, blind children were entering society in record numbers, and as they neared adulthood, people began pressuring the government to provide this sightless subset of society with a way to support themselves. The government decided to teach them massage, and in a few years time, the image of a blind masseuse wandering the city streets in search of customers¾stick in one hand, horn held to his mouth with the other¾became a common sight.

This paved the road for Waichi Sugiyama, the first blind acupuncturist. In the mid-sixteenth century, Waichi decided he wanted to practice acupuncture. At eighteen, he left the country home of his well-to-do parents in and traveled to Edo, where he met his first teacher, a sighted acupuncturist named Takuichi Yamase. After five years under his tutelage, Takuichi threw Waichi out, saying his pitiful techniques would forever keep him from being an accomplished acupuncturist. Heartbroken, Waichi began the long journey home, but halfway there, he collapsed from exhaustion in the town of a famous doctor. As fate would have it, this doctor had also been Takuichi 's mentor, and after regaining his health, Waichi got another stab at being a disciple.

With practice, his needling skills progressed, but, even after a few years of dedication, he still wasnít good enough to practice on others. Desperate for help, he traveled to an underground cavern and asked for divine inspiration. After 21 days of fervent prayer, he finally gave up and stumbled back into the light of day, poking his hand on a pine needle as he attempted to support his exhausted body on a nearby rock. Cursing, he picked it up, and, as he did, he realized that it was sticking out from a reed of bamboo. Inspiration struck and that bamboo reed became the basis for a device known as a kudabari¾ a needle insertion guide tube that is now standard equipment for both blind and sighted acupuncturists worldwide.

Waichiís innovation made him acupuncturist, and his use of it firmly established acupuncture as a profession for the visually impaired¾especially when Waichiís acupuncture skill cured Shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa of a serious illness. As an expression of gratitude, the Shogun gave Waichi a chunk of land, which became the home to Shinji Koushujo, Edo's first organized school for the blind. By the time of his death at the ripened age of 80, he had established 45 blind acupuncture schools throughout Japan and simplified volumes of ancient medical texts, making a substantial body of knowledge available to the blind on a practical level for the first time ever.

Unfortunately, with Waichi no longer around to lobby his turf, funding for blind acupuncture schools dried up, and within a couple of decades, every one of Sugiyama's schools was forced to close. Blind acupuncture managed to survive as an underground profession until 1876, when Rakuzen-Kai¾the first private school for the blind¾was founded and spawned a new era of blind education. Within 20 years, three more private schools¾Kunmoin in Kyoto, Takada, and Kunmoin in Yokohama¾were openly training blind acupuncturists.

Today, all but Kunmoin in Yokohama has been converted into public schools, and now the majority of Japan's 69 schools for the blind are almost entirely funded by government sources. These schools generally provide free education from kindergarten on up, meaning that students earning post-secondary credits share their campus with kids of all ages. After graduating from high school and before going on to acupuncture school, students must pass an entrance test just like any sighted student would. Explains Hoshiyama, "Since we all take the same national licensing examination, our acupuncture department offers what sighted universities and colleges do. The main difference is that, in our three year program, we use Braille and learn on a special practice model with raised acu-points."

Nonetheless, some places flatly refuse to employ the blind. Thus while sighted practitioners generally claim to be supportive of their blind colleagues, Hoshiyama believes that sometimes this is merely lip service. "For example, blind acupuncturists can't practice in major hospitals, partly because MDs don't fully trust acupuncture and are even more wary of a blind practitioner. But the real reason is that the hospitals don't want blind people around because they are afraid we'll bump into patients or knock things over. They simply aren't willing to accept our differences and help us to become useful. Often¾and not just in acupuncture¾they say no long before we are given a chance to prove ourselves. Even so, we do very well."

Edward Obaidey, a British expat who runs the Edward Acupuncture Clinic in Sangenjaya, Tokyo, feels that he can relate to the plight of blind acupuncturists, because like them, he too must overcome a perceived handicap. "But, when I do acupuncture, I don't feel that I'm British. I'm just doing acupuncture. Once in the professional arena, it doesn't matter whether you are English or Japanese, blind or sighted, if you are good, then you are good¾full stop. If you want to get really specific, then if acupuncture came from China, then it can only be practiced by Chinese. Hopefully, we're proving that such restrictions are unnecessary."

Masako Tsubato, a Tokyo University student who's working on her masters in public health, discounts widespread prejudice against blind professionals. "Blind or not blind is not important¾most Japanese base their decisions on which clinic is closest to their home." Nurse Cheiko Kubota gives it more thought, "Growing up, I honestly believed that acupuncture and massage were jobs for blind people only. It is so common in Japan, that I don't think people in Japan care." Yoko, however, points out that most people automatically think of massage, not acupuncture, when they hear blind practitioner, and thus may not realize that discrimination exists: "I still hear of people who choose an acupuncturist just because he is sighted, rather than looking at the effectiveness of his technique or how long he has been practicing."

But Hoshiyama doesn't seem as concerned about what others believe. His easy going, come-as-you-may attitude, deflects discriminatory practices pettiness without even a furrow of concern. Even day to day encounters, things like, insensitive taxi drivers and ignorant landlords, seem far less important to him than the future that awaits his direction. "I don't dwell on the bad things," he says. "Both Yoko and I are very forward thinking, so we don't allow ourselves to be shut out. When I meet someone with a prejudicial attitude, I let them know I am open to their thinking and then I keep at them. Eventually, I get through."


The Blind Leading The Blind

Today, roughly 600 people like Hoshiyama and Yoko¾300 of whom are fully blind¾teach acupuncture to visually impaired students in Japan. But according to Hoshiyama, this number is decreasing: "80 percent of Japan's 300,000 registered blind people are elderly¾ although this number isn't exactly accurate because there are people who won't register because they fear discrimination. Plus, the percentage of the population with multiple handicaps¾as opposed to blind only¾is increasing."

Hoshiyama says societyís needs are also changing, and new steps must be taken if blind people wish to maintain their self-sufficiency. "As the merits of acupuncture become more recognized, acupuncture is playing a greater role within the medical community¾so blind acupuncturists will certainly benefit," continues Hoshiyama. "However, we must also realize that requirements are becoming stricter, which means some of us may get squeezes out of the market. Like Waichi Sugiyama, blind practitioners must be prepared to meet and rise above these coming challenges. Now it is our turn to continue the legacy."

Luckily, a couple of contemporary blind acupuncturists are committed to the task. Leading the pack is 85-year-old Kodo Fukushima, the "godfather" of contemporary meridian therapy (a healing practice that uses the pulse to diagnose and treat sickness) and the force behind the enormous Toyo Hari I Teaching Center in Tokyo. His personality is almost as famous as his acupuncture, and he is described as charismatic, dogmatic, charming, and difficult¾depending upon which side of the needle one is on. Obaidey concurs, "When he treated me, I felt his strength rather than his needling technique. He is a very powerful, amazing presence." Stories of Kodoís eccentricities are tossed about like disposable needles. After hearing a tale of four students who went to observe and ended up as paying customers, Yoko launches into one of her own, "Once, at a study meeting for teachers, I was experiencing terrible menstrual pain, so he decided to treat me with moxibustion. But, my pain didn't let up, so he told me he wasn't going to stop until my pain went away. Finally, after he'd burned 21 cones on me, I told him my pain was gone because I couldn't bear the moxibustion any longer."

Dr. Katsuke Serizaw, a near-blind MD and famous acupuncturist, is another indelible personality in blind acupuncture. Still running steady at 76, he's written numerous acupuncture books for the blind¾some of which are available in English¾and has upgraded the overall quality of Japanís blind education system. Also unforgettable is 63-year-old Eiichi Nagao, the head of Rikyoren, Japan's association of blind acupuncture teachers. In addition, Yoshiharu Imai, who died just a few years ago, also left a legacy to the blind by founding a huge acupuncture clinic that handles well over 100 people per day.

A bit like a modern-day Waichi himself, Hoshiyama is also a resounding presence, particularly since he's determined to carry blind acupuncture across international borders. His message is that, since Japan is the only country in the world that allows blind people to become licensed acupuncturists, people like himself have a responsibility to share their fortune. "If we can do it, everyone else can as well," says Hoshiyama. "Just like when the Japanese government brought in native English speakers to help society become international, other countries should be bringing in our educators to help the blind become more self-sufficient¾and this can't happen if the rest of the world doesn't even know what blind people have accomplished here. I want blind people everywhere to live as independently as we live in Japan."


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