Kanpo-limentary Medicine

Okay so maybe that pun was a little bit of stretch. Moving on, today we met with Dr. Qiu at her kanpo (漢方) clinic in Ebisu. I’ll be blunt: it was absolutely fascinating hearing about how she became interested in kanpo, how she came to be where she is today, and the kind of practice she does.

Dr. Qiu was originally from inner Mongolia, where her father was a pediatrician of Western-style medicine. Dr. Qiu, herself, apparently had something of a weak constitution (taishitsu) and Western medicine couldn’t really address or treat it. So, her father took a year’s leave from his practice to study kanpo, searching for a way to heal. When he returned, Dr. Qiu became something of his first “guinea pig,” but to remarkable success. Her father maintained his Western-style clinic, but began to expand his kanpo practice to his neighborhood; eventually, his patients seeking kanpo healing outnumbered those that went to his clinic. After the transition to kanpo, Dr. Qiu and her sister helped out in the waiting room, receiving and serving tea to patients. So Dr. Qiu’s interest in kanpo has a very personal connection and backstory to it that I think is a wonderful story.

According to Dr. Qiu, and very much aligning with what we’d read previously, kanpo is all about identifying and healing the imbalances in the body and has a strong environmental component. Rather than addressing individual problems, kanpo seeks to remedy the body as a whole, and many of these individual problems can be ascribed to an overall imbalance in the body and/or ki. One thing I thought was astounding was the strong regulation on medicine that exists in Japan. Whereas in the US, a lot of treatments might be considered “dietary supplements” and thus would not be regulated under the FDA, in Japan everything is tightly regulated. So many of Dr. Qiu’s medicines are purchased through a middleman company(?) that imports the medicine from China and undergoes strict inspection to ensure that what is on the label is what the patient is getting. I’m not entirely sure how this tight regulation plays out economically, but from a health and environmental perspective it seems like an excellent system that the US lacks. I was also intrigued by how complimentary kanpo and Western medicine are perceived in Japan, whereas elsewhere (i.e. the West) they might be perceived as at odds with one another. I think it highlights the strengths of each; kanpo seems to be particular effective at treating chronic and complex illnesses, while Western medicine might be more effective in the short term at treating specific, targeted illnesses or diseases especially when the pathogen is known. Kanpo also excels at, when an exact “treatment” is difficult to pin down, boosting the body’s natural defenses and ki.

What also struck me was how close and intimate Dr. Qiu seemed with her patients (from her stories). Specifically, when the 3/11 Fukushima nuclear disaster happened, Dr. Qiu was considering returning to Mongolia; apparently, the Mongolian embassy(?) was offering free tickets for citizens to evacuate and return home. Many of Dr. Qiu’s patients called her directly, expressing concern for her and explaining that they would completely understand if she decided to return home. But, they added, they would be deeply grateful, too, if she decided to stay–that’s how close and important they felt Dr. Qiu and her kanpo practice was to them and their healing. I think this is a wonderful example of putting someone else’s needs before your own. I was also struck by how lively and energetic (genki; 元気) Dr. Qiu was, and by how body language and gestures also played an important role in telling her stories. Finally, Dr. Qiu served us some おいしい kanpo medicine to dispel any impressions that kanpo tastes bad. We also got to measure out a little take-home bag of medicine too. すごい! Sugoi! Very cool!


The rest of the day was devoted to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, housed in a building that looks like it could have been from Star Wars (think maybe the walkers?). The museum documented the historical transition from Edo to modern day Tokyo, but evidently presents a very idealistic, hardship-free view. Still, it was interesting to explore the history of Edo, and a lot of the displays and dioramas were interactive (always a plus for me, when going to museums!). We also took some great, at times hilarious photos, so stay tuned!