Interview with Haruhiko Masunaga: in his father’s footsteps

13 Feb, 2024
Reading Time: 10 minutes

For several years now, Haruhiko Masunaga has been carrying on the legacy of his father Shizuto Masunaga and teaching Iokai Shiatsu throughout the world. In return, the world of Shiatsu has been watching closely to see how he would cope, such was the enormity of the task. At the last European Shiatsu Congress, held in September 2023 in Kiental, I had the pleasure of chatting with him and asking him some questions. At first sight, he’s a reserved, almost discreet man, but once we’ve got past the initial exchanges, he shows great calm and inner strength when we broach the subject of Shiatsu. One thing is certain now: he fully embraces his heritage, and his teaching is of a high quality that continues to improve with time.

This interview is a first, as it was prepared with Monika Knaden of the German Shiatsu Journal, of which she is the editor-in-chief. The interview took place behind closed doors, in German and Japanese, conducted by Monika and Ivan Bel, with translator Mami Kawa and Bénédicte Séguin recording the audio and taking the photos. It was one of the highlights of the Congress to be able to talk and listen to the man who has undoubtedly become one of the world’s great Shiatsu teachers.

Monika Knaden: Haruhiko Sensei, only long after your father’s death did you became his successor. Who was key for your training in Shiatsu?

Haruhiko Masunaga: I have often been asked this question. Unfortunately, people often don’t quite understand what I exactly meant by my answers. I didn’t have a direct teacher who personally taught me Shiatsu. If Shiatsu would only consist of technique, there would have to be a master. But in Zen Shiatsu, it is not only the technique that is important, but more the attitude. Naturally, I have followed my father’s footsteps and tried to include his teaching. What he taught as Zen Shiatsu, I also teach and practice. My father died when I was 19 years old, so I didn’t had the opportunity to learn Shiatsu directly from him. There are three main reasons why I am still able to work as a Shiatsu practitioner (in his spirit):

  1. As a child I often received Shiatsu treatments from my father. That was an impressive experience. I have six other siblings, but I was the one who received the most of the Shiatsu from my father. When I started to learn Shiatsu, my body remembered: “Ah, this is the Shiatsu I received”. I see this as a great treasure and my heritage. Of course, I also experienced to some extent his daily life and his personality. He lived almost like an ascetic monk and strove to reduce his own ego. I have never actually seen him come home from work and say today it was a good day or today it was very exhausting. The moment he came home, the atmosphere in the house became like a Zen temple. Of course, that was very stressful for me when I was growing up, when I went to middle school and later to high school. I think I felt that special kind of atmosphere more than my siblings.
  2. My father wrote several books and numerous articles. I brought some of the original books with me to Kiental. But it is just a selection, he wrote more than ten books. And all about his way of seeing Shiatsu can be found in them! This red book here has been translated into other languages, including German, under the title “Zen Shiatsu”. But it is the only one and I would like to see his other books translated into German as well.
  3. My teachers are my patients. When I give treatments every day, it sometimes goes well and sometimes not so well. In both cases, I look for the “why” and I have found that in the treatment where things didn’t go so well, I was unable to let go of my ego. My father also used to say that the best training as a Shiatsu practitioner is to treat patients. I think that since I have a lot of practice in treating patients myself, I have at least come a little closer to what my father experienced.
Haruhiko Masunaga ready for the interview. (C) Monika Knaden

Are there any other texts by your father that shed more light on his thoughts on Shiatsu and should be translated into German?

His book “Zen Shiatsu” is a book that all Zen Shiatsu practitioners should have read. Unfortunately, what he has written in it is not enough to fully understand Zen Shiatsu. He has written several other books, each unique in its own way, and they are published again and again. In one book, called “Tales of 100 treatments”, he explains not only techniques used in Shiatsu, but also what he has experienced in treatments and the importance of selflessness in Zen Shiatsu. There are French and Italian translations of this book and now also an English edition. There should also be a German translation. The book is intended for interested citizens, not only for professional Shiatsu practitioners. It is very soulfull. If you understand everything in this book, you are already in a position to practice Zen Shiatsu.

My father has also written articles for several specialist periodicals. These are summarized in a book. The title is “Meridians and Shiatsu” (jap. Keiraku to Shiatsu). It is not easy to understand, but it was his typical way of writing. I also recommend my students to read this book, but almost all of them tell me that they have great difficulty in understanding it. But it is definitely worth reading. It also deals with TCM. My father was able to read old medical classics that were published in China 2000 years ago in the original. He also wrote explanations of these ancient writings in this book. I very much hope that there will be a German translation at some point. There is also a French and Italian edition. I can’t say to what extent they have been translated correctly.

He has also produced a book edition for interested people who want to learn Shiatsu by remote learning. So far I have only given my seminars in Iōkai, but there are also people who live outside Tokyo who want to learn Shiatsu.

Japanese books by Shizuto Masunaga brought by Haruhiko. (C) Monika Knaden

Do you see yourself as the sole keeper and propagator of your father’s legacy or have you also developed Shiatsu further based on the experience of your long practice?

Well, many people can’t understand that, they think that after 40 years there must be of course a further development. But my opinion is that my father created a foundation or original teaching with Zen Shiatsu, so I can’t develop it further or give it a different interpretation. I haven’t reached my father’s level of mastery either, and I want to maintain what he taught.

My father even said himself: “My Shiatsu is complete!” He has healed some patients that the doctors had already given up. He also said quite directly that he can see the meridians. I’ve finally got to the point where I can feel the meridians, but I still can’t see the meridians like my father. So, since I haven’t yet reached my father’s level, how can I develop my not so yet perfect Shiatsu? My great wish is, even if I don’t know how long I will live, that I can see what my father saw.

How do you see the development of Shiatsu in Japan? Is Shiatsu established as a complementary therapy in Japanese society?

That’s a good question. I think the time has come for Japanese Shiatsu to be saved. This means that unfortunately the younger generation has no interest in Shiatsu. Shiatsu is a state-certified therapy in Japan and so young people study at a Shiatsu college for three years, full-time. After their training, they can call themselves Shiatsu-shi (shi = honorary title for expert craftsman, note of translator). But unfortunately not many people are interested in it any more. Even the general public today no longer knows what Shiatsu actually is, and the number of Shiatsu practitioners has decreased accordingly.

The reason for this lies in Japan’s medical system after the Second World War and in Western conventional medicine. There is a tendency in Japan that if there is no scientific basis, people will not accept an alternative therapy.

When my father was involved in Shiatsu, it was really flourishing. At that time, many people thought that Shiatsu was a treatment method to relieve tension and to massage certain areas. But my father strongly believed that shiatsu could do more than that, and that it was also good for sick people who could be treated with it, but not with strong pressure. At that time, Anma was already no longer seen as a medical treatment, but only as relaxation and wellness. My father predicted that this would also be the case for Shiatsu. In fact, it turned out that way and he was right. I actually prefer not to talk about it.

During the interview, from left to right: Monika Knaden, Ivan Bel and Haruhiko Masunaga. (C) Benedicte Seguin

How do you see the development of Shiatsu in the West?

I was at the opening ceremony of this congress this morning. I was of course very pleased that so many people attended, and compared to the situation in Japan it is also very enviable. I would have liked to ask why so many people are interested in Shiatsu. However, people in Europe should also be aware that Shiatsu was originated from Japan and get to know its origins.

Will the Iōkai Institute continue to exist in the next generation?

That’s also a difficult question. I’m now over 60 and I’m currently training young people in Shiatsu at Iōkai Institute. They are interested, but it is particularly important for them to learn how Shiatsu can have such an effect and why some patients can be healed through Shiatsu. But it’s difficult for them to understand and assimilate my Shiatsu.

I have 7 children. It’s a secret in Japan (smiles mischievously). They are all working, but unfortunately, none of them are interested in Shiatsu. I don’t want to push them to continue with the Iōkai Institute. It has to come from them wanting to learn and teach Shiatsu, I don’t force it.

When my father became so ill, there were many people who thought he should find a successor. He wasn’t approached directly about it, but people went to my mother first. She then asked my father and he said to her it wasn’t that important. It would be decided at some point. And… It was a long road and it took a long time before I finally took on this task. Now it’s a big challenge for me to see how things will continue with Iōkai.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Haruhiko Masunaga and his translator Mami Kawa (C) Benedicte Seguin


Monika Knaden
Latest posts by Monika Knaden (see all)
Ivan Bel


François-Rémy Monnier
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