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Straighten the Back to Sit: Belly-Cultivation Techniques as “Modern Health Methods” in Japan, 1900–1945

Abstract

In Japan, the first half of the twentieth century saw a remarkable revival of concern with the cultivation of the belly, with a variety of belly-cultivation techniques, particularly breathing exercise and meditative sitting, widely practiced for improving health and treating diseases. This article carefully examines some practitioners’ experiences of belly-cultivation practice in attempting to understand its healing effects for them within their life histories and contemporary intellectual, social and cultural contexts. It shows that belly-cultivation practice served as a medium for some practitioners to reflect on and retell their life stories, and that the personal charisma of certain masters and the communities developing around them provided practitioners with a valuable sense of belonging in an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society. Moreover, these belly-cultivation techniques provided an embodied way for some to explore and affirm their sense of self and develop individual identity. While they were increasingly promoted as cultural traditions capable of cultivating national character, they also served as healing practices by inspiring practitioners with a sense of collective identity and purpose. With these analyses, this article sheds light on the complicated meanings of belly-cultivation for practitioners, and provides illustrative examples of the multitude of meanings of the body, bodily cultivation and healing.

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Notes

  1. Tanden locates at two inches below the umbilicus.

  2. An introduction to Ueno Yōchi can be found on the website of the Sanno Institute of Management, which he founded in 1942: http://www.sanno.ac.jp/founder/index.html.

  3. This article focuses on practices that placed more emphasis on the cultivation of the body, and were promoted more as health or therapeutic, than as personal cultivation methods. Similarly originating from traditional meditative sitting techniques, a few other practices, notably Zazen, also attracted a great deal of interest at the time. By contrast, they placed more emphasis on mental experience and cultivation, and were mainly practiced for religious, moral and intellectual improvement, though some also considered them to have health and therapeutic benefits (Sawada 2004).

  4. The James-Lange theory of emotion was popular with advocates of breathing exercise at the time, possibly because of its compatibility with their view that proper body position was the key to mental health.

  5. It is a legend about the Tengu teaching Yoshitsune Minamoto swordsmanship skills.

  6. Tafusaki is a style of traditional Japanese string loincloth.

  7. Sarumata is a style of Japanese underpants that is a modification of Western underpants. It became popular after mid-Meiji period. Fundoshi is a style of Japanese string loincloth that is lighter and more comfortable than tafusagi.

  8. Many advocates of belly-cultivation techniques shared Okada’s view on modern scientific civilization and criticized it as over-analytical and over-intellectualizing, to which they claim body cultivation to be an antidote. To this viewpoint, Morita Shōma’s critiques provide an interesting comparison. Morita, whose Morita therapy is another notable therapeutic as well as personal cultivation method of the period that adopts a distinct approach to the self from the Western ones, similarly criticizes certain Western sciences and ideas, such as psychoanalysis, Darwinism, socialism and democratism, as excessively analytical and speculative, blaming them for misleading people into believing in false realities. Nonetheless he places high value on science so far as its knowledge is based on empirical facts (Morita 1974 [1934]). For nervous (shinkeishitsu) patients, Morita therapy provides a way to obtain experience-based insight and knowledge about the nature of their disease and themselves through self-observation and work (Morita 1974 [1921]).

  9. Shyūyōdan is a right-wing organization founded in 1906 by Hasunuma Monzō for social education and the promotion of moral and spiritual cultivation, particularly in youth. It promoted patriotism and nationalism and had close association with the government in the militarist period. Futaki joined Shyūyōdan in late Meiji period and was an active member. He succeeded Hiranuma Kiichirō, who was a former prime minister and convicted as war criminal after WWII, as the president of Shyūyōdan in 1946 (Futaki Kenzō Sensei Kinenkai, 271–274).

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Correspondence to Yu-chuan Wu.

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Wu, Yc. Straighten the Back to Sit: Belly-Cultivation Techniques as “Modern Health Methods” in Japan, 1900–1945. Cult Med Psychiatry 40, 450–474 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-016-9487-6

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Keywords

  • Neurasthenia
  • Hara
  • Breathing techniques
  • Quiet-sitting
  • Okada Torajirō