What is Shiatsu?

Shiatsu is a holistic massage therapy from Japan. It helps harmonise mind and body, deepen self-awareness and encourage self-healing. Shiatsu has been described as "Acupuncture without needles" or "Massage with your clothes on".

Shiatsu differs from Western styles of massage in three ways:

  1. The client remains clothed
  2. No oils are used
  3. Perpendicular pressure is applied rather than stroking techniques

Pressure is applied using palms, thumbs and fingers. Occasionally, elbows, knees and feet are used to deepen the pressure. Other techniques include stretching and light manipulation. Moxa or Magnets may also be used. A session may include advice on diet and exercise. The practitioner's knowledge of oriental theories, like Yin & Yang and the Five Elements, may help shed light on life issues.

Traditionally shiatsu is performed on a cotton futon mattress on the floor. However, some practitioners prefer to use a massage table.

Three basic principles that define shiatsu:

  1. Perpendicular pressure
  2. Holding pressure
  3. Concentration1

These three principals were identified to distinguish shiatsu from anma, traditional Japanese massage, when shiatsu was officially recognised as an independent style of therapy by the Japanese government in 1964.2

There are various styles of shiatsu, many, though not all, revolve around the oriental concept of a meridian system, loops of connecting channels throughout the body within which Ki is said to flow.

Shiatsu theory focuses on the stimulation, balance and flow of Ki. However, in practical terms that can mean:

  • Loosening of tight muscles
  • Release of tension
  • Improving flexibility
  • Calming the mind
  • Reduction of stress
  • Correcting posture
  • Creating relaxation


In the Zen-shiatsu system, perpendicular pressure is applied to tsubo and meridians to help harmonise the flow of Ki. The objective of a Zen-shiatsu practitioner is to identify and stimulate change in patterns of Kyo-Jitsu. Ki deficient from a Kyo area creates an excess, Jitsu. The subsequent Jitsu compensates for, protects and often hides the Kyo. Each Kyo has a paired Jitsu, therefore each deficiency is balanced by an equal excess.

The meridian system in zen-shiatsu is twice as long as the traditional system. In the traditional system a meridian would travel to or from either the hands or the feet. However in the zen-shiatsu system each meridian travels to all limbs, effectively doubling their length.

Zen-shiatsu promotes the idea of two handed connectedness. Forming an awareness of connection between both hands increases the connection with the client. Often one hand, the mother hand, is passively observing while the other hand, the child hand, is active.

Research into shiatsu:

Research into shiatsu is in it's infancy. However, there are two key papers published in recent years that are of notable interest.

  1. The Systematic Evidence Review for Shiatsu - October 2006

    Commissioned and funded by Shiatsu Society.
    Undertaken by the Centre for Complementary Healthcare & Integrated Medicine at the Faculty of Health and Human Sciences, Thames Valley University.
    2010 Update

    This report makes evident the lack of research into Shiatsu. However, the review also looked at research relating to acupressure, which is an aspect of Shiatsu. It found a lot more research into acupressure and concluded that "the evidence is generally consistent and has demonstrated that acupressure can control pain". Other areas of research were found to be either inconsistent and needed further research or demonstrated week evidence due to study design.

  2. The Effects and Experience of Shiatsu: A Cross-European Study - December 2007

    Commissioned and funded by the European Shiatsu Federation.
    Undertaken by the School of Healthcare at the Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Leeds.

    The research took place in three countries, Austria, Spain and the UK. The study's findings confirm the safety of Shiatsu. Benefits to general well-being, health maintenance, health promotion and awareness. It was noted that there was a reduction in the use of conventional medicine, medication and working days lost due to ill-health. As well as a statistically significant reduction in symptom severity for all symptom groups.
    (Full Final Report)


1. The Secret Art of Shiatsu Sei-Ki Life in Resonance (2011) by Akinobu Kishi and Alice Whieldon, Singing Dragon, London and Philadelpha Pg73 Ln11

2. The Secret Art of Shiatsu Sei-Ki Life in Resonance (2011) by Akinobu Kishi and Alice Whieldon, Singing Dragon, London and Philadelpha Pg30 Ln16

© Copyright 2010-23 John Williamson FwSS - Professional Bodywork Therapist. All Rights Reserved.