Kampo: The Herbal Medicine of Japan Blends Traditional Medicine and Modern Science
Dan Kenner, L.Ac.
In recent years traditional herbal medicine has become a part of mainstream medicine in Japan. Japan is a land of interesting paradoxes, where the ancient and traditional are held in high esteem along with ultramodern trends in science, technology, culture and fashion. Japan is a nation where traditional kimonos are still acceptable formal wear, where the evening sports on TV highlights the results of sumo wrestling matches during the tournament season and where Shinto priests still bless new office buildings with traditional ceremonies. The face of traditional herbal medications, however, has changed. The traditional herbal formulas are manufactured with all of the chemical laboratory technology used by conventional pharmaceutical companies. The formulas are then made into tablets or capsules and prepared for the marketplace in typically sleek pharmaceutical packaging.
Even when traditional herbal medicine was in disfavor during the late 19th and early 20th century, Japanese researchers extensively studied the properties of some of the important herbs. In 1885, Dr. Nagayoshi Nagai isolated ephedrine from ma huang (Ephedra sinica), which had commonly been used in formulas for treating asthma attacks. Ephedrine attained the status of a standard drug used in medical practice not only in Japan, but in the U.S. and Europe. Many of the herbs used in Kampo were accorded legitimacy in the western science-dominated medical culture, but it was not until the 1930s before the traditional Kampo system of prescription was re-evaluated on its merits as a method of medical practice.
The Modern Era
Kampo has become an important feature of modern medical practice in Japan. Today almost all Japanese pharmacies carry the traditional herbal formulas and have a pharmacist on staff who is trained in the traditional methods of prescription. The great majority of Japanese physicians, over 70%, use at least some Kampo formulas in their practice.
The most significant historical landmark for traditional herbal practice was in the 1960s, when the “Kampo Boom” emerged resulting from the unconditional demand from the normally docile Japanese public for safer medications with fewer negative effects. Herbal practice began to flourish and public institutions were forced to respond. In 1972 the Japanese Medical Association took the position that conventional laboratory blood tests were not sufficiently sensitive to decide which traditional formula should be used for a sick patient, and so the traditional methods of diagnosis based on patient history and examination of the pulse, tongue and abdomen were adopted. At this time the practice of Kampo was restricted to physicians and to licensed pharmacists who underwent special training.
In the 1970s, oriental medicine wings of teaching hospitals were established for physician training programs. In these institutions, clinical research was undertaken on how to use traditional Kampo formulas for treating various health care problems. Among the first were the Toyama Medical and Pharmaceutical University in Toyama, the Kitazato Institute in Tokyo and the Kinki University Medical Teaching Hospital near Osaka. At Kinki University, Dr. Shigeru Arichi researched the used of traditional formulas for treatment of the effects of steroid withdrawal. He also did research trials on treatment of chronic hepatitis, diabetes, chronic pain and a variety of other health problems.
Dr. Arichi’s research method used laboratory blood tests along with traditional pulse diagnosis, examination of the pulse the abdomen and of the tongue. He often demonstrated these methods on hospital patients during grand rounds for physician trainees and hospital interns who wanted to learn Kampo. Dr. Arichi would examine the patient’s color, take a look at the tongue, feel the pulse and the a