Religion and Healing in Pre-Modern Japan



Throughout the pre-modern history of Japan, successive waves of foreign religious and medical influence provided distinct models for healing the mind-breath-body complex. Proto-Shintō divination and healing were supplemented by Daoist traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that theorized and restored the flow of ki (qi) energy throughout the body. Buddhist medicine and healing rituals mitigated karmic disease (gobyō ), also empowered patients with a hands-on healing technique called kaji, and offered the medicinal and meditative benefits of Zen tea. Islamic medicinal recipes made their way into Japan at the farthest reach of the Silk Road, and Neo-Confucian moral physicians as well as Jesuit surgeons carried competing models for health into Japan. In terms of visual culture, moreover, the healing Yakushi “Medicine” Buddha, esoteric mandalas, attributes of the thousand-armed Kannon bodhisattva of compassion and even paintings of healing herbs on the coffered ceilings of Buddhist temples indicate the central role that religion played in the medical arts of pre-modern Japan. Chronicling Japan’s religio-medical history in this way is important for several reasons. First, its interdisciplinary approach integrates the latest scholarship in religious studies, the history of science, and art history. Second, it offers much-needed historical perspective that can help to inform the contemporary interest in alternative medicine, the power of prayer in healing, and the health of the mind-breath-body complex. Finally, it speaks to the cultural flows and effects of pre-modern globalization, which facilitated the dissemination of knowledge far afield from its origins.