Early in human history, mankind distinguished useful plants for food, medicine, and poisons. Through trial and error, they accumulated knowledge about the plants around them. It is the phenomenon which occurred in every civilization around the world.
In prehistoric Japan, the root of Aconitum japonicum Thumb. var. montanum Nakai was used as arrow poison to kill animals. Until recently, the Ainu, a minority ethnic group living on the Japanese islands, used this poison to hunt bears and other animals.
Around 2,000 BC, on the Japanese islands, people began to settle down and engaged in farming. They left behind unique earthenware with braid-like patterns upon them. This period is generally called the Joumon era, (Joumon means braid).
When archeologists excavated the remains of residences dating to this period, they discovered the bark of Kihada (Phellondron amurense Rupr.). It is the oldest herbal drug discovered in Japan. An excellent anti-diarrhea medicine and stomachic, Kihada is still appreciated in Japanese folk medicine.
The myth regarding the establishment of ancient Japanese dynasty relates that one of the deities treated a rabbit suffering from scrape with the pollens of a kind of reeds, Gama (Typha angustifolia L.), which is allegedly the first description of medicinal herb in Japanese literature. As the myth shows, the pollens were medicinally used as styptic, and harvested in the deltas of big rivers until before the world war two. They were used to treat cuts and burns.
The Introduction of Knowledge from the Continent
While people in Japanese islands were passing Joumon era when characters were unknown, in China, a book called “Shinnou-kyo” (meaning the scripture of the god of agriculture) was allegedly written by a mythical emperor god, Shinnnou (meaning the god of agriculture) after he tried one hundred herbs a day to check the properties. Although the existence of this book is not so certain, and its author is vague, it impresses how long ago Chinese herbal medicine can go back. This book is said to refer to 365 items including animals and minerals. Still some people engaged in manufacturing or dealing herbal drugs are worshipping the god of the agriculture. This god is counterpart of Asclepius in Chinese medicine.
The oldest pharmacognostic book which is bibliographically confirmed is “Shinnnou-honzou-kyo” written by Toukoukei around 500AD. This referred to 730 items, adding 365 items which had been used by eminent physicians up to then to ones referred to in “Shinnou-kyo”. Honzuou means herbal literally, but as a matter of fact it represents all category of natural materials including minerals and animal products as well. Since ancient times Chinese have thought that every natural product can be use as medicine and regarded food as medicine, not specifically distinguishing medicine from food. It is typical of Chinese. Therefore Honzou is a subject composed of pharmacy, pharmacognosy and pharmacology.
The feature “Shinnnou-honzou-kyo” is that it classifies drugs into upper class, middle class, and low class. Upper class represents the drugs which nurture life, rejuvenate, correspond to heaven, and can be taken for long term because they contain no poison. Which includes Ginseng, Liquorice, and Saiko. Middle class represents the drugs which are aphrodisiacs, preventatives, and tonics, correspond to man, and are combined case by case because they are either poisonous or poisonless. Which includes ginger, Kuzu root, Chinese angelica, Ephedra. Lower class represents the drugs whose purpose is treating diseases, correspond to the earth, and should not be taken for long term because they are mostly poisonous. Which includes Aconitum. This classification is quite unique in Chinese medicine. This book was passed down, and became the base of Chinese medicine of later generations, but unfortunately lost in the course of time. The title indicates herbs, but this book also deals with not only herbs but also animals and minerals. It is thought that this book was introduced to Japan around 730 AD. In 5th century Chinese medicine has already been introduced to Japan via Korea, but later according to the policy of the government to absorb Chinese culture earnestly by direct contact with China, the then emperor government began to dispatch promising students to China to learn wide range of Chinese culture between 5th and 6th century. The most prominent influence from China was introduction of Buddhism, which was adopted by the government as national region. The introduction of Chinese medicine was accompanied with it. But the first advocates of Buddhism were the monks who lived in mountains to discipline themselves and were independent of and rebellious to the government. They were ascetics whose religion was cross between folklore faith and Buddhism. Their activities were fasting cereals, administration of medicine, meditation, massage, a sort of sex therapy, and so on. As the campaign to show the grace of Buddha they administered drugs or treatment to the people for free, and this custom was taken over by official Buddhist monks to take hold of people. Even now some Buddhist temples keep the custom of treating believers with moxibustion. But since the rigid pharmaceutical law to control drugs was enforced and handmade drugs were prohibited in fact, preparing and administering drugs in temples are not allowed any more. It was they who played a key role in spreading Buddhism to common people. For example the drugs made from Kihada extract were originally the preparation given by them. In this period Buddhist monks were engaged themselves in treating common people who could not afford to pay for expensive drugs.
As a result of positive opening to foreign culture, numerous important plants which became the indispensable in Japanese culture and life were introduced. Ume (Prunus mume Sieb Et Zucc ), Sesame (Seamum indicum L.), Shiso (Perilla frutescens Britt. var. acuta Kudo) to name only a few. The highlight of this period to upgrade the standard of medicine in Japan was the visit of Buddhist monk from China named Ganshin who contributed to spreading Buddhism enormously and eventually died in Japan. He was not only a great monk but also a man of great knowledge of medicine and herbs. He brought lots of items including herbal stuff with him, and taught medicine to Japanese students.
As in European tradition herbs are tied up with saints, in Japanese tradition they are tied up with prominent and popular Buddhist monks. For example a member of Labiatae family, Hikiokoshi (Plectranthus japonicus Koiczumi) is related with the most famous monk, Kouboudaishi who brought Buddhist scriptures from China and help Buddhism take root in Japan. He was not only a brilliant scholar of the day, but also the popular figure who traveled around to help people in need. The story goes that when he was walking on a mountain road, he found a traveler suffering from stomachache. He immediately tore the herb beside him, and put the juice of it in his mouth. The traveler recovered quickly, and continued to travel. From this event the name Hikiokoshi was derived, which means awakening. Hikiokoshi is bitter stomachic treating indigestion, loss of appetite, stomachache, and food poisoning.
The first official investigation of medicinal herbs harvested in Japan by the government of emperor dynasty took place in early 8th century. It is remarkable that many of the popular folklore medicinal herbs of today had already been known in these early days. Which included Gennnosyouko (Geranium thunbergii Sieb. et Zucc), Senburi (Swertia japonica Makino), Matatabi (Actindia polygama Maxim), and Kihada.
The first book of medicinal herbs written by a Japanese author appeared in 918. It is “Honzou-wamyou” which means Japanese name of drugs of natural origin. In this book Chinese herb is matched with Japanese herb, and it mentions whether domestic product is available or not and if any, producing center.
Chinese Medicine and Japanese Folklore Medicine
There is confusion between Chinese medicine and folklore medicine, as concerns Japanese herbs. Aside from the system of Chinese herbal medicine, there is abundant stock of folklore medicine handed down through generations. However there are many cases in which both Chinese medicine and Japanese folklore medicine use the same herbs.
It is necessary to know that there is definite difference between Chinese medicine and folklore medicine. People tend to think simply that it is Chinese medicine to take infusion of herbs. Correctly speaking Chinese medicine is the drug prescribed according to the symptoms diagnosed on Chinese medicine. The prescription is usually composed of several drugs, designed to obtain the effects which are not achieved by single stuff. It is a quite rigid formula which is not allowed to change arbitrarily.
On the other hand, folklore medicine is usually used single-handedly, and it follows the instructions transmitted from their ancestors. It is basically self treatment devised in the time when it was difficult for common people to get medical service, for example when one gets diarrhea, he or she takes Gennnosyouko (Geranium thunbergii Sieb. et Zucc) instead of over-counter drugs. It can not be called Chinese medicine.
When Chinese medicine was introduced into Japan, Japanese people had to face the problem of how to achieve self support of medicinal herbs. Unlike now, there were no cheap and safe cargos available to import herbs from the continent constantly in old days. In order to keep constant supply of herbs, to find the equivalent herbs in Japan was more convenient than to import seeds and grow them, which was also took place. Therefore, the subject of identifying herbs indigenous to Japan with Chinese herbs became an important province of Chinese medicine in Japan. But it was not always possible to find the identical herb in terms of botany in Japan, so they must substitute different species of similar medicinal effects for Chinese herbs. Which often causes confusion between Chinese herbs and Japanese herbs. For example, root of Senburi (Swertia japonica Makino) which is one of five great folklore medicine of Japan was initially used as a substitute for Chinese medicine Koouren (root of Picorrhiza kurrooa Roile ex Benth and P. scrophulariiflora Pennell). They are totally different from Senburi in terms of morphology. Common is that both are bitter stomachic. It is presumed that when Koouren was transmitted, Japanese people had no idea of what it was like, and matched it with Senburi by mistake. They just had to depend on illustrations in herbals.
The Episode of Introduction of Tea (Thea sinensis L.)
In the end of 12th century Japanese emperor dynasty was displaced by warrior dynasty, but trade between China and Japan was flourishing. In this transition period Buddhist monks took position of academic mainstream. It was in this era when green tea was brought into Japan from China in earnest. A monk named Eisai went over to China, and brought the seeds of tea, and cultivated in Kyoto. He learned that green tea was effective for health, while in China. He wrote a book about tea, which covered the nomenclature, morphology, cultivation, preparation, medicinal effect for respective diseases, and how to take tea. It boosted the trend of drinking tea among warrior class and cultivation of tea around Japan.
Green tea is prepared in the different from black tea, in which the young leaves are not fermented. As a result vitamin C is kept intact. As it was, in Japan tea was originally introduced as medicine not mere beverage. Tea was appreciated as curing hang over among warriors. Later art of tea was developed and became a typical Japanese art. Recently scientific research showed that green tea had medicinal effects such as anti-carcinogenic and tonic.
The Invention of Decoction Sachet
In 14th century Japan was in the middle of war between tribes. In battle- fields surgeons specialized in treating injuries inflicted with swords came into existence. They used teabag-like method to get decoction of herbs, in which they poured boiling water on sachet containing dispensed herbs when treatment was called for. It was very much earlier than the invention of teabags which took place in early 20th century.
The Development of the Study of Herbs
In 1596 another epoch-making book “Honzou-koumoku” which means list of herbs and natural materials was written by Rigichin in China. It illustrates 1,903 medicinal goods of plant and animal kingdom. A copy of it was immediately obtained by a scholar patronized by the government as early as 1607, after the first Shougun of Tokugawa dynasty settled his capitol in Edo, the present Tokyo in 1603, and the scholar dedicated it to him. He had put an end to long lasted war era between warrior tribes, and brought about peace. Tokugawa dynasty lasted almost 3 centuries which is called Tokugawa period. Tokugawa regime took isolation policy against west, so the introduction of new information was very limited, but it is this period when the study of herbs flourished more than ever. Chinese medicine was transformed into Japanese style, and gave rise to potent sects of the day.
The influence of “Honzou-koumoku” spread over the centuries, and became a bible of medicinal herbs for students. Following the introduction of this book, in1709 a book “Yamato-honzou” which was the result of the absorption of it was written by Kaibara Ekiken, one of great medical scholar in Japanese history. He intended this book to serve the general well being of common people. He added 358 items of domestic herbs which were not mentioned before, and mentioned 1362 items in total.
In this era of peace, study was encouraged, and as a result study about medicinal herb also developed dramatically. As the economy boomed, wealthy merchant class became prosperous, and as a result the level of education lifted up as a whole. The establishment of print technology contributed to enlightening commoners as well. In this context the first illustrated encyclopedia “Kinmou-zui” turned up in 1666, and was welcomed enthusiastically. Among the followers “Wakan-sansai-zue” which covered the general knowledge of the day was published in 1713. In these encyclopedias information of medicinal herbs was indispensable, and transmits valuable information about folklore medicine of this era.
The Foundation of Herb Gardens
The 8th shogun Yoshimune was a wise ruler, who encouraged cultivation of medicinal herbs as a part of policy of promoting self support of farm produce.
In the middle of Tokugawa period import of medicine increased, and the payment of gold and silver stumped the finance of the government and feudal domains. The self support of medicinal herbs became crucial, so cultivation of medicinal herbs was promoted by him, and feudal lords followed suit. According to this policy herb gardens were built all over Japan. About 30 herb gardens were counted. It served as pilot farm for growing both imported Chinese herbs and domestic herbs. The regime also appointed herbalists and botanists to investigate medicinal herbs in the provinces and collect the seeds to cultivate.
The introduction of ginseng began in 739 when the mission of the king of Bokkai (the small country which occurred in the northeast part of China) came to Japan. Then they brought ginseng. The ginseng brought into Japan in this era is still preserved in the temple, Shousouin in Kyoto. From 15th century on ginseng was imported to Japan in succession from Korea. Since physicians overvalued ginseng, common people also tried to get it even it was too expensive. In consequence the demand soared, and many counterfeits appeared. Ginseng fever caused various social problems, in order to buy ginseng there were daughters who went so far as to sell their bodies to cure their parent’s poor health, and those who stole. Under the circumstance, Yoshimune decided to cultivate ginseng, which is the earliest in the world, earlier than Korea. First he had the roots planted, but it did not take root, then he had seeds sown, it succeeded in 1733 eventually. He favorably treated farmers who cultivated ginseng. In 1780s ginseng started to be imported to China. The cultivation spread all over Japan.
Ritual of Okera
On every new year’s day, ritual of Okera takes place in Gion-Yasaka shrine in Kyoto. It begins at 4 o’clock before dawn. Twelve torches made of willow wood are placed in precincts, then are kindled by divine fire. Priests throw dried root of Okera in the flames It has been believed that the fume has magical power to keep the evil at bay from antiquity. There drifts around fragrant fume. Visitors inhale this fume deeply, and wish themselves safe and sound for the year.
Okera is a member of composite family (Atractylodes japonica Koidzumi) which bears small white flowers in spring. Okera is indigenous to Japan, it has been loved by people as long as can be remembered. The first collection of poems, called “Manyoushuu” which literally means ten thousand leaves includes poems sung of this plant. Besides, the oldest history book, of Japan called “Nihon-shoki” records the event where infusion of dried Okera root was dedicated to the then emperor, which is the first description of infusion for medicine. Okera root is known to be diuretic and stomachic.
In Tokugawa period which enjoyed peace and prosperity of about three hundred years and spawned extraordinary culture during the time, people burned Okera in rainy season to prevent humidity, especially clothes merchants liked it, because they hated humidity which diminished the value of their goods. This scene was a part of poetic charm in rainy season. This wisdom of everyday life was justified by recent scientific research in which it was proved that the fumes of Okera suppressed the proliferation of mildew and was poisonous to mosquitoes and flies.
The buds of Okera is highly prized as wild vegetable of the spring by people living in mountainous areas.
Plants Used as Dye and Medicine
Since antiquity people exploited a various use of herbs. As a result, it turned out that lots of herbs could be used as medicine at the same time as dye. For example Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) whose petals were used to dye cloth pink or yellow was also used to treat female diseases such as monstrous problems and menopausal problems. It was also used to make rouge since one thousand and several hundred years ago in Japan. Before synthetic dye was on the scene, Safflower was cultivated intensely into 1920es. Another example is Indigo (Polygonum tinctorium Lour.) whose leaf is used to dye cloth blue. It was also used as febrifuge and detoxifier. Japanese madder, Rubia akane Nakai is another example, whose root was used to dye cloth madder red in old days, but fell into disuse. It is emmonogogue and haemostatic at once. Japanese Gromwell (Lithospermum erythrorhizon Sieb. et Zucc) was highly prized as the only dye which showed purple which was regarded as noble color. It was used as skin healer to treat skin problems such as dry skin, boils, burns, and piles. Unfortunately, the appearance of synthetic dye and drug put an end to these practices.
Development of Proprietary Drugs
In Tokugawa period, proprietary drugs developed. Because most people could not afford to get medical service from physicians, they depended on ready- made proprietary drugs circulated in various ways. Owing to stability and peace of this period, proprietary drugs were spread in nationwide scale. It is this period when proprietary drug manufacturers began to sell their products in their shops. On the other hand, peddlers traveling from village to village contributed to healthcare of provincial people. Some were subcontractor of big manufacturers, and some were sponsored by some feudal domain governments as a policy to sustain their domestic industry. Some were side business of farmers in the off-season for farmers. Many proprietary drugs were advertised to be connected with divine revelation, and often the origin was a drug which was administrated to pilgrimages of temples and shrine by monks or priests. For example, the origin and history of the extract of Ume (Prunus mume Sieb.et Zucc.) is as follows. The shrine which was dedicated to a court retainer used to distribute the Ume extract to its believers. He was accused of falsely, and relegated to remote outpost in southern region. When he was at the point of departing to the outpost, he composed a poem about the pink flowers of his beloved Ume in his garden. After he was exiled from the capital, it rained heavily, and turned paddy fields into morass. In the days when hygiene was poor, it led to the epidemic of plague, which is assumed to have been contagious gastrointestinal disease in terms of modern medicine. He worried about people heartily, and chanted Buddhist scriptures in the pouring rain with his whole heart. After several hours Kannnon-bosatsu, the deity who is specialized in helping people in need appeared, and told him “Take Ume fruits he loved and give them to people. Find a fountain by the temple of Kannon-bosatsu to wash the fruits. It will drive away the disease.” When he returned to his residence, he saw splendid Ume tree heavy with fine fruits. He set about making Ume preparation according to the instruction of Kannon-bosatsu. Thus he saved people from a plague. Stories about other drugs allegedly inspired from god or something are basically in same line.
Collapse of Japanese Herbs
The end of Tokugawa period brought about the rush of western medicine. On the other hand, Chinese medicine declined. Western medicine was adopted as authorized medicine by the new government, and as a result physicians of Chinese medicine were deprived of practicing unless he had license of western medicine.
After a long period of low tide, people became aware of the merits of herbal drug or Chinese medicine again after 60es when many synthetic drugs caused irretrievable health problems. Ironically in advantage of this unhappy event, the government introduced more rigid regulation called Good Manufacturing Practice emulating FDA in USA, which contributed to driving away lots of traditional household medicine which were herbal origin and made by home manufacturing. This regulation in fact precluded the ways traditional medicine was made, for example, making ointment by kneading herbs in well water in the winter chill and boiling it with the fire of burning the root of pine tree was forced to be replaced by tap water and a boiler.
Some herbs are registered in Japanese pharmacopoeia which is based on the provision of Pharmaceutical Affairs Law. It provides the standards of qualities, properties, and so on. It includes 165 items of drugs of natural origin. Senburi, Kihada, Dokudami, and Gennnosyouko to name only a few. Besides there is the standard of extra of Japanese pharmacopoeia. It is the standard of the drugs of natural origin which is not included in Japanese pharmacopoeia but not to be ignored because they are used relatively frequently. It includes 59 items of herbs. Hatomugi and artemisia are members of this. They are treated as drugs too, if the standard is met.
Japanese pharmacopoeia is revised at least every 10 years. The first version was published in 1881.
1) Ichirou Yabe, Herbs of Edo, Science-sha Japan, 1984
2) Hajime Souda, Japanese Traditional Drugs, Shufunotomo-sha Japan, 1989
3) Akira Suzuki, Encyclopedia of Traditional Drugs, Tokyo-do- shuppan Japan, 1999
4) Tsuneo Nanba, Research on Traditional Medicine & the Establishment of Ethnopharmacology, Natural Medicine 53(supple. 2) 69~75 Japan,1999
5) Tsuneo Nanba, Invitation to Chinese- Japanese medicine, Touhou-shuppan Japan, 1996
6) Junji Nakanishe, Book of Japanese Medicinal Herbs, Kensei-sha Japan, 1997
7) Kazuo Izawa, Encyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs, Shufunotomo-sha Japan, 1998