Japanese return to ancient medicine to treat maladies large and small

October 16, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- In the shadow of the pulsating neon lights of Akihabara, the humming, electrified part of Tokyo where Japan's most advanced gadgets are sold, the 17th-century-vintage Kinokuniya pharmacy sells old recipes of herbs and minerals and animal extracts.

Japan, a society that reaches into the 21st century for so much of its needs, reaches back into an ancient culture to heal itself.

Testimonials to the effectiveness of these medicines are not hard to find. Tomiko Yamaguchi, 72, said her shaking from Parkinson's disease had become so severe that she would be jarred awake during the middle of the night.

For a year, she has been combining Western medicine with Oriental medications prescribed by a doctor with training in both. Now, she says, "My hands still shake a bit, but nothing like before."

Fumiko Nishiko, 54, an office worker, came into the pharmacy one afternoon to buy two compounds. One was for rashes and cuts. The other, a popular store special blend that includes gold, is to stimulate the circulation, cleanse the liver and alleviate the // crippling weariness that comes with Tokyo's humid summers. Cost of the second medication: $200 a month.

But these old medications also are used for the most serious illnesses.

Early this year, a 36-year-old European woman underwent a mastectomy. She said the subsequent chemotherapy produced intolerable side-effects -- the usual hair loss and nausea, as well as debilitating muscle cramps.

After her discharge from the hospital, she stopped chemotherapy in favor of kampo (meaning the Chinese method or way) medicines prescribed by a doctor. Most of the ingredients come from common plants and roots.

The results: positive, so far. Her strength has returned, her initial tests were good.

The treatment, she said, is more sensitive and far less invasive. Risks? She said she has more confidence in this treatment than the conventional alternatives.

The interest in treatments with traditional roots marks a shift in sentiment after a protracted infatuation with the advanced Western medical techniques.

Only two decades after the United States forcibly opened Japan up to the rest of the world in 1854, Japan's government had changed medical licensing to require doctors to be trained in Western methods, a critical blow for those using the Chinese-style medications that were common for more than a millennium.

Much of the remaining interest went into suspension right after World War II, when Japan's defeat prompted widespread confidence in the superiority of most forms of American technology.

Dr. Michio Tani, a conventionally trained doctor well-known for his work with kampo and acupuncture, said that when he expanded his practice in the 1960s to include Oriental techniques, there were only three other doctors using them in all of Japan, and patients weren't interested.

Today, it is why most patients come to his clinic. Thousands of other doctors offer similar treatments, along with the standard kit of modern medicine.

Dr. Tani combines old medications with new drugs in the hope of producing either more effective treatments, or similarly effective treatments at a lower dosage, with fewer side effects.

He claims to have had good success using Oriental medications treat not only cancer, but also AIDS.

He said he has tried to interest the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in his AIDS treatment, but with little success.

"The FDA says it is just tea," Dr. Tani said.

Making the case for many of these treatments is complicated by a broad lack of understanding of how they work.

Most modern drugs distributed in the United States have a single active ingredient, but the herbs and mineral and animal extracts used in Oriental medicines have a bewildering array of medicinal properties that are difficult to isolate.

More confusing still, they often work only in peculiar combinations, complicating the process of determining what is producing the sought-after effect and how that effect is being reached.

The Japanese government has approved 210 kampo ingredients, including numerous flowers, ground sea shells, and the ground shell of bugs.

None has been screened using the rigorous efficacy testing required in the United States.

"There's no proof that kampo is especially effective," said Satoshi Fukimura, an official with the Health and Welfare Ministry.

But, he added, the ministry receives almost no complaints, meaning even if they are not particularly helpful, they are not particularly dangerous, either. Given a thousand years of history, Mr. Fukimura said, the ministry has been reasonably satisfied that kampo is safe.

For 129 specific preparations, the government has gone further, bestowing its ultimate stamp of approval -- reimbursement for treatment from the national health system. Yet this remains controversial and may be revoked.

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