Kampo: A Modern Japanese Medicinal System with Traditional Chinese Roots

By Jhena Waring

What is Kampo?

Kampo is a traditional Japanese herbal medicine system, used to treat chronic and acute disease alike.

Its guiding principle is the balance of physical and mental health; body and mind. The body and mind are seen as inseparable, and health is achieved by balancing these two entities.

Kampo Through the Ages

Kampo was introduced to Japan around the fifth century, by way of China.

After President Nixon’s visit to East Asia in 1972, Kampo began to gain international recognition. Most notably, Kampo practices of acupuncture made their way to the West.

In Japan in the twentieth century, people started choosing Western medicine over Kampo. In recent decades, Kampo has surged in popularity once more.

Currently, Kampo is fully implemented into Japan’s healthcare system. More than eighty percent of doctors in Japan prescribe Kampo medicines.

Some literature suggests that Kampo is especially effective in treating inflammatory diseases. It has also been found to work as an overall disease-preventative measure.

Photo: New Africa

Five Element Theory

As Kampo originated from traditional Chinese medicine, they share a strong foundation. Both schools of thought believe that relationships in nature can guide us towards balancing our emotional and physical health.

The Five Element Theory applies balance with the cyclical patterns in nature (such as changes of season) and the cycle of life and death, to human rhythms. Kampo medicines are prescribed based on the cycles of nature, and an individual’s elemental levels. For instance, if someone is lacking in fire, they might follow a route which ignites their wood qualities. The five elements are as follows:

1. Wood

  • Associated with new beginnings and springtime

  • Corresponds with the liver and gall bladder

  • Related to emotions such as anger

2. Fire

  • Patterns of growth and summertime

  • Corresponds with the pericardium, heart, and small intestine

  • Related to feelings of joy

3. Earth

  • Natural patterns of balance and transition, such as the last day of each season

  • Associated with the spleen and stomach

  • Evokes feelings of worry

4. Metal

  • Centered around the autumnal period

  • Related to the lungs and large intestine

  • Emotions associated with grief

5. Water

  • Patterns of conserving resources and winter

  • Connected to the kidney and bladder

  • Evokes fear-like emotions

How Kampo Compares to Other Medicinal Systems

Kampo is like traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda in the sense that they both focus on holistic approaches. These medicinal systems treat the entire body and mind in order to heal the specific malady.

In contrast, Western medicine is symptom-oriented. Here, the focus is on alleviating the specific symptoms caused by the disturbance.

Photo: Oriento

Combining the Traditional with the Modern

Natural herbs can take longer to yield effects than pharmaceutical Western medicines. Because of this, practitioners in Japan often use combination therapy. This is a treatment that combines Kampo and Western medicines. Health care practitioners speculate that this fusion method has contributed to enhanced patient quality of life.

Japan is currently the only country where clinical doctors can prescribe both Western and Kampo remedies. This hybrid model honours science and technology while being rooted in tradition and natural healing.

Herbs and Formulas

There are more than 210 varieties of Kampo medicines readily available. However, before being prescribed a Kampo formula, an abdominal examination must be taken.

Kampo places a heavy importance on gut health, understanding that everyone has a  different gut biology. This, alongside the Five Element Theory, shows that the system is not “one size fits all.” Rather, the plant-derived medicines must be tailored to the particular individual. Kampo uses fixed combinations of herbs standardized by traditional Chinese medicine’s classical literature. So medicines are tailored based on their prescription, but not according to their formula.

Medicinal mushrooms like reishi and shiitake have a long history of usage in Kampo.

Kampo and Plant-Based Eating

The first practitioners of Kampo over 1500 years ago were Buddhist monks. Since many monks adhere to strict vegetarian diets, Kampo is very complementary for plant-based individuals. Most Kampo medicines are composed solely of plant-based ingredients.

Kampo medicines can often be ingested in teas. This is an easy way to add Kampo practices into your routine. Practitioners recommend eating before or after administering herbal teas.

Kampo Outside Japan

In North America, Kampo is practiced mostly by acupuncturists. Some alternative medicine professionals offer other Kampo procedures, and this is expected to gradually increase with time.

Currently, Kampo formulae are being studied in various clinical trials around the world.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We advise readers to always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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