An Epic Guide To Shiatsu Massage

There are a lot of things to love about shiatsu massage.

For one, it doesn’t require oils or any lubricant. It’s also perfect for people who are uncomfortable removing their clothes before a massage treatment. Shiatsu focuses on stretching and pressure points so it can be performed even with your clothes on.

And with roots originating from the traditional Chinese medicine, shiatsu massage also uses a holistic approach. In other words, it addresses not only the physical symptoms but also  provides healing on psychological and spiritual levels.

In this guide, we’ll explore the definition, origins and basic techniques of the well-known Japanese bodywork.


What Is Shiatsu Massage?

Shiatsu came from the words “shi,” which means finger, and “atsu,” which means pressure. However, this massage isn’t just about “finger pressure”; it also involves kneading, soothing, tapping and stretching with the use of the fingers and palms.

This massage is based on a holistic approach to healing.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the Qi or Ki (pronounced as “chee”) refers to the flow of energy throughout the body. This energy is what keeps our body functional–it nourishes the mind, body and spirit. It flows to different organs through pathways called meridians. The organs and different body parts, meanwhile, are represented by specific pressure points known in Japanese as tsubos. 

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If there’s an obstruction in any of these pathways, the flow of energy is disrupted, causing a variety of diseases. The goal of shiatsu massage is to establish harmony and bring back the balance to the energy flow. By applying gentle pressure, manipulation and stretching on the meridians and pressure points, balance of the Qi can be reestablished.

Over the years, shiatsu has branched out into different styles and techniques. This can be partly explained by its history, which was forged by both Asian and Western influences.


Origin and History.

Shiatsu definitely sounds Japanese, but its history goes as far back as ancient Chinese civilization.

In 7th century AD, a group of Japanese students was brought to China to learn the country’s medicine and culture. The things the Japanese learned from the trip–the massage included–became especially useful in helping their martial arts students recover from injuries and unconsciousness.

In the ensuing centuries, the Japanese practiced Anma (or tui na in China) massage as a healing method. As time went by, however, this massage had slowly strayed away from the healing principles, with most practitioners reducing it to a simple method of providing pleasure and relaxation.

History of Shiatsu Massage
Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 20th century, practitioners such as Tamai Tempaku realized that the only way to preserve the traditional Japanese massage was to adapt with the trend. By combining older methods with the principles and disciplines of Western medicine, a new form of massage was born.

Tempaku initially called it shiatsu ryoho or finger pressure way of healing, eventually referring it to as shiatsu ho or finger pressure method. The government subsequently issued licenses to help distinguish the legitimate Anma practitioners as well as to further popularize the healing art.

Shiatsu was nearly banned in Japan during WWII, only to be saved through the collective effort of the Japanese blind community whose livelihood depended on it. Since then, shiatsu practitioners in Japan have kept distance from its Chinese roots and begun incorporating Western medicine techniques like chiropractic and physical therapy into their practice.

In 1964, Japan officially recognized shiatsu as a form of therapy and distinguished it from the Western massage and the traditional Anma massage.


Three Systems of Shiatsu Massage.

Since its emergence in the early 20th century, shiatsu has given birth to a variety of styles, all of which are rooted to any of the three systems or theoretical schools established in Japan: Namikoshi (Nippon style), Masunaga (zen shiatsu) and Serizawa (acupressure shiatsu).

Namikoshi or the Nippon style is much more intense as it focuses more on the body’s pressure points and anatomical structure than on energy channels. It was popularized by Tokujiro Namikoshi who established both Shiatsu Institute of Therapy and the Japan Shiatsu Institute in 1925 and 1940, respectively.

While Nippon style is more Westernized, the zen shiatsu sticks to the traditional. Introduced by Shizuto Masunaga, this systems focuses on the holistic approach common in the traditional Chinese medicine. It addresses a person’s physical symptoms but also provides healing in psychological, spiritual and emotional levels.

Zen shiatsu also reintroduced the Five Element Theory or macrobiotic approach, which is a method of diagnosing illnesses based on the dominant energy force in the body. In ancient Chinese medicine, five elements or energy forces (fire, earth, water, wood and metal) are identified to be circulating throughout the body. Imbalances of these elements lead to different negative emotions.

Serizawa, on the other hand, was popularized by Katsusuke Serizawa whose studies focused more on the acupoints (tsubos in Japanese terms) and how shiatsu massage can manipulate them to achieve therapeutic results. Among the three systems, Serizawa or acupressure shiatsu is the least popular.


Shiatsu Massage vs Swedish Massage.

Shiatsu and Swedish are two of the most common types of massage, and people always compare the two to decide which one is right for them.

If you like a “traditional” massage, you’re most likely referring to Swedish. Developed by a Swede named Pehr Henrik Ling, Swedish consists  of basic strokes, all of which are delivered through the hands.

These include long, sweeping strokes called effleurage; kneading or petrissage where you work on muscles as if you’re kneading a dough; rhythmic tapping or tapotement that involves percussion movements like chopping; friction or application of deep pressure using your fingertips or knuckles; vibration; and a host of other movements intended to manipulate your skin, muscles and connective tissues.

Swedish requires the use of massage oil.  This lubricant is applied on the skin so the receiver usually undresses before the massage. It provides relaxation and relief from stress or muscle tension. Swedish is relatively more popular because massage is deeply felt and the benefits are already evident right after a session.


Shiatsu, on the other hand, works on the person as a whole. It’s commonly performed on the floor through a traditional Japanese bedding called futon. It doesn’t require oils and involves pressure points, gentle manipulation and stretching.

Unlike in Swedish massage, the receiver stays fully clothed throughout the session. Shiatsu is also quite more demanding for the person doing the massage as it may require the use of elbows, knees and feet in addition to the hands.

With roots in the traditional Chinese medicine, shiatsu also aims to provide healing not only on the outside but also on the person’s inner systems as well. Its goal is to restore the balance in the energy flow known as Qi or Ki. Although the effect may be subtle, proponents of shiatsu claim that its benefits can be more powerful in the long run.

Shiatsu is the best massage technique if you’re complaining of weakness or fatigue, headaches and back pain.

Also Read: How To Give An Awesome Back Massage That Melts The Pain Away


Shiatsu Massage Benefits and Effects.

Shiatsu has the perfect balance of intensity and healing benefits which makes it appealing for many people–whether they’re young or old, sick or healthy and with or without prior experience of receiving Asian bodywork.

Although scientific studies have been conducted to prove the benefits of shiatsu in one’s health, they’re few and far between. One of them was done in 2003 in Germany and United Kingdom, wherein 14 practitioners and 15 clients participated.

The results are anything but conclusive, but they give us an idea about the immediate and long-term effects of shiatsu. In both countries, few people experienced negative effects while the majority reported improvements on “initial symptoms, relaxation, sleeping, posture, and experiences of the body.”

While more studies are needed to substantiate these claims, there are anecdotal evidence that prove shiatsu provides more benefits than risks. Here are some of the benefits of getting a shiatsu:

*Restored energy level.

*Deeply relaxed body and mind.

*Sense of  well-being.

*Improved posture and immunity.

*Increased circulation and movement of lymph.

* Relief and prevention of different conditions such as muscle tension, anxiety, depression, headaches, sinus congestion, stress, digestive problems, joint pain or arthritis, insomnia, fatigue and backache.


Contraindications for Shiatsu Massage.

Shiatsu practitioners know how to fine-tune their touch to suit the client’s condition. It can vary from light touch to deep pressure. However, massage should always be considered as only part of complementary therapy, so consultation with your physician is an essential step before receiving shiatsu.

READ: Contraindications for Massage Therapy

These are some contraindications for shiatsu massage, with some important reminders:

*Contagious fever, skin diseases, open wounds or rashes.

*No shiatsu directly above fractures, bruises, tumors, abdominal hernia, areas of inflammation, varicose veins and recent scars.

*Don’t give shiatsu immediately after chemotherapy, unless recommended by the doctor. If allowed, an experienced shiatsu practitioner may only apply the lightest pressure on the body.

*Range of motion techniques are contraindicated for people with painful, arthritic joints or vertebral column issues like herniated disc.

*Light pressure can be applied on those with osteoporosis, provided that prior consultation with the physician has been done.

*No shiatsu immediately after surgery.

*For people with heart diseases or high risk for blood clots, contact your physician to know if you’re allowed to receive shiatsu.

*Cancer patients can also receive shiatsu as long as it complements traditional treatments and done with the doctor’s recommendation. Shiatsu can help patients cope with the disease by controlling the symptoms and side-effects such as low mood, pain, insomnia and  poor appetite.

*Shiatsu massage for pregnancy is not prohibited as long as it’s done by a practitioner who is trained in pregnancy massage. Doctor’s recommendation is also needed because there are specific areas in the body that shouldn’t be touched to avoid pregnancy complications.

*A person under the influence of drugs or alcohol shouldn’t also be allowed to receive shiatsu, as massage speeds up the circulation and absorption of these chemicals.

*If hypertensive, shiatsu should not be performed on the abdomen.


Basic Rules To Remember When Practicing Shiatsu.

Before performing shiatsu, one has to earn a certification or at least gain a deeper knowledge of the practice to ensure great results. Here are few things to remember when doing shiatsu style massage:

*To facilitate the flow of energy or Qi, wear loose fitting clothes made of natural fibers. It should be worn by both giver and receiver of shiatsu to prevent awkward skin-to-skin contact which often leads to unintended sexual connotations.

*Ensure the room is warm, clean and have adequate space to make the massage more comfortable. The goal is to keep the person calm and relaxed.

*In most places outside of Japan, shiatsu is often done on a futon or a traditional Japanese mattress. A futon is usually 1-1.5 inches (2.5-4 cm) thick and consists of two to three layers of compressed cotton or wool. You can also use any type of mat as long as it’s over 7 feet (2 m) long and 5 feet (1.5 m) wide.

Shiatsu Massage Mat or Futon
A futon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

*Provide small cushion or small cloth to support the receiver’s head and limbs. A lightweight cloth might also be needed to cover the neck and face while you’re working on them, especially if the skin is sweaty or oily.

*Music is optional. Ask the receiver if it’s alright to play music. If so, ask him/her for the preferred songs or sounds. There are sounds that can be too depressing or may remind the receiver of some sad incidents in the past, so be sensitive enough to ask questions before playing the music.

*To avoid fatigue and muscle strain, follow these basic rules of good shiatsu posture from the book “The Foundations of Shiatsu” by Chris Jarmey:

(1) Adopt a wide base with your legs to ensure a low center of gravity.

(2) Look ahead, not down at the receiver (apart from an occasional glance to check that the receiver is comfortable).

(3) Keep your shoulders relaxed, feeling that the shoulder blades are moving down your back, away from your ears.

(4) Keep your chest open, without forcing it.

(5) Feel the back of your neck is open, lengthening and relaxed.

(6) Imagine that the spaces within the joints of your spine, shoulder, elbows, wrist and fingers are constantly opening as they relax more.

(7) When using your hands to apply shiatsu technique, it is important to ensure that your knee or knees are not positioned between your hands.

Shiatsu Massage Techniques

*Never give shiatsu massage if you or the person receiving it has just eaten a meal. Wait for a few hours to ensure the food is fully digested.

*Don’t give shiatsu to a pregnant woman unless you’re trained to do so and has the doctor’s recommendation. Areas that shouldn’t be massaged on pregnant women include legs, the area between shoulders and neck, stomach and the skin between the thumb and forefinger.


Basic Strokes in Shiatsu.

Shiatsu is an Asian bodywork comprised of different techniques which use the thumb, palm of the hands or both. These make up the foundation of shiatsu, and learning these basic strokes is essential for beginners.

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The basic shiatsu techniques include single thumb pressing, double thumb pressing, thumb over thumb pressing, alternate thumb pressing, single palm pressing, double palm pressing, palm over palm pressing and stretching.

This YouTube instructional video gives a summary of each shiatsu massage technique:



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