Japanese Herbal Medicine

Karen Frazier
Kampo Medications

Japanese herbal medicine, also known as Kampo, is an adaptation of the elements of Traditional Chinese medicine.

What Is Japanese Herbal Medicine?

Japanese herbal medicine deals primarily with the diagnosis and treatment of illness using herbs; however, Kampo also incorporates elements of acupuncture and moxibustion, which involves the burning of mugwort (moxa).

History of Kampo

Kampo's roots originate in the Chinese Han Dynasty, which extended from 200 BC to 220 AD. Chinese medicine came to Japan in about the 17th century. The texts of Chinese medicine in Japan during this period led to the publication of the book, the Ishimpo, which became the classic Japanese text on Kampo. Kampo is represented by the Japanese characters "Kan" which represents the Han dynasty, and "po" which means "way" or "method". Quite literally, the meaning of Kampo is the Way of the Han Dynasty.

Kampo and Liver Disease

Kampo has been used extensively in both China and Japan for treatment of chronic liver diseases and other inflammatory conditions. A number of research papers have demonstrated that Sho-saiko-to (SST) is effective as an anti-inflammatory, anti-fibrotic and treatment of liver disease.

About the Herbs Used in Kampo

In Japan, the herbal medications used in Japanese herbal medicine are regulated much like pharmaceuticals are regulated in the United States. Every aspect of herbal production is monitored for quality and safety. Japanese citizens are guaranteed access to these herbs through the Japanese national health care plan.

The herbs used in Kampo are fixed combinations of herbs in standard proportions. Because of the government control of herbal production, the herbs are strictly measured and each Kampo medication consists of exactly the same ingredients.

There are 165 herbs used in kampo medication. While it is beyond the scope of this article to list them all here, many are commonly recognized Western herbal preparations such as tea leaf, angelica root and licorice, while others might seem less recognizable - such as pacific oyster shell, bamboo shavings and gypsum.

Kampo incorporates many Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine concepts such as In-You (negative and positive), as well as balancing of the humors. The treatments are divided into three groups relating to three different bodily functions - urination, sweating and defecation. The medications are believed to balance the disharmonies in the body. Kampo medications can take much longer than standard Western drugs to work - it is not unusual to have a three month prescription.

Kampo in the Western World

Kampo is primarily practiced in the West by acupuncturists, naturopaths and Chinese medicine practitioners. There is one American manufacturing company that follows Japanese Kampo traditions and manufactures the herbal formulas, Honso USA. Not surprisingly, their parent corporation is Honso Pharmaceutical Co in Nagoya, Japan. These formulas have been studied in US clinical trials sponsored by Honso, USA. Among the Kampo herbal medicine clinical trials have been a study of Honso Sho-saiko-to for treatment of hepatitis C, which was done at New York Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, as well as a study on cirrhosis of the liver caused by hepatits C, which was done at UC San Diego Liver Center.

Kampo originally came to North America via a doctor from Taiwan who immigrated to the United States in the mid-seventies. Although the practice of Kampo is centuries old, it has only been in North America for the past few decades.

Kampo in the United States is often considered interchangeable with Traditional Chinese Medicine. Both have arisen from the same philosophies of medical diagnosis and herbal treatment.

Cautions and Side Effects

  • Kampo preparations have been in use for centuries, however, they should not be self-prescribed. The Kampo system is complex and only an experienced practitioner can balance out medications in a way to avoid side effects while affecting positive change.
  • Seek treatment only from a reliable practitioner who obtains Kampo medications from a trusted and reliable source.
  • Avoid mixing Western herbs with Kampo medications.
  • Some patients have experienced severe kidney or liver problems after treatment with Kampo medications. Patients with a history of diseases of these organs should have their blood monitored regularly while taking Kampo medications in order to detect any problems.
  • Some Kampo herbs are known toxins, however, in controlled quantities prescribed and monitored by an experienced Kampo practitioner, these toxic side effects can be minimized or negated.
  • Some people may have hypersensitivity or allergies to the herbs used in Kampo. Monitoring is essential.
  • Western Kampo practitioners practice as alternative health-care providers in the United States. As such, they are largely unregulated. Do your research before selecting a Kampo practitioner.

How to Find a Kampo Practitioner

If you are trying to locate a Kampo practitioner, a good place to start is with local Chinese herbalists or acupuncturists. You may also want to check with other local alternative medicine practitioners to find out who practices Kampo in your area. Once you've located a practitioner, careful assessment of their qualifications and experience is essential. Do your homework before choosing Kampo - or any other alternative therapy - to discover if it is the right treatment for you.

Japanese Herbal Medicine