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Sunday, April 6, 2003


Masters of potions past

Staff writer

Your interest may have been aroused by a friend's story of how, after trying kanpo (Chinese herbal medicine), their pollen allergy has not been so problematic this season. Or, on the other hand, you may have been intrigued by magazine articles with eye-catching headlines like "The Chinese medicine way to beauty."

News photo
Toshitaka Koi

Still, though, you may be wondering whether you can rely 100 percent on this oriental medicine to treat your health problems, over and above widely recognized and highly developed Western medicine.

Though he practices traditional Chinese medicine himself, Toshitaka Koi readily agrees such skepticism is only natural, as much less is known or understood about kanpo than its Western counterpart.

Koi, who graduated from the University of Tokyo's department of pharmacy, gained certification as a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine from the Chinese government in 1998 after studying at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. In his view, both Western and Chinese medicine are equally important in their appropriate, respective roles -- though he says there's an information gap to be filled on the oriental side.

To help bridge that gap, Koi is keen to talk to the public about Chinese medicine's approach to the human body and its view on health. In March, Bungei Shunju published his book titled "Kanpo Bijin Koza (Kanpo beauty lecture)," in which he covers 28 conditions and their symptoms from the viewpoint of traditional Chinese medicine.

Though the choice will always be the individual's as to which form of medicine to turn to, in an interview at his Kofuku Yakkyoku (Pharmacy of Happiness) near JR Ebisu Station in Tokyo, Koi happily answered a range of questions that may help in making that choice.

What is the key feature of Chinese medicine's approach to the human body?

Western medicine observes and treats each part of the human body separately and scientifically in a set way. Depending on the person's symptoms, they see specialists in ophthalmology, otolaryngology, internal medicine, surgery and so on. If you have eye troubles, ophthalmologists will closely examine you and try to find the cause. Medicine is then prescribed to treat each symptom directly.

Chinese medicine treats the human body as a whole. If a patient complains of a problem in one part of their body, doctors of Chinese medicine try to find out the underlying problem or problems that may be causing the problem. If a patient has eye trouble, I will ask about any other health problems they may have, such as sleep or menstrual disorders, for example. Kanpo is then prescribed to cure the "unbalanced" condition of the whole body, as well as the eye problem itself.

You say both Chinese and Western medicine have their good points and that we should make use of the two effectively. Could you explain this a little more?

If you compare a health problem to a fire, Western medicine is often compared to firefighters or firefighting equipment. Chinese medicine, on the other hand, is compared to stopping the gas leak that caused the fire.

In the case of a patient with atopic dermatitis, for instance, a Western medicinal ointment will work to cure the skin directly. Kanpo is designed to work on the causes of the problem, which are usually linked to the malfunctioning of other parts of the body .

As a result, some people believe that kanpo may not cure the condition swiftly. But actually, in a case like this, both medicines should be taken wisely to make the most of their different features.

Can kanpo treat conditions that Western medicine does not clearly categorize as sicknesses in themselves?

Yes. With minor skin problems, for example, you may be told at a regular hospital something like: "These symptoms are not considered an illness, so let's wait and see what happens." But Chinese medicine doctors may suspect that something is wrong with your body and that is leading to the symptoms.

Chinese medicine is often said to be good at dealing with conditions that may be termed "half-sickness." That is a condition that is not yet considered to be an illness, but which may lead to sickness if it is left untreated. In this respect, Chinese medicine has a character of preventive medicine, as opposed to Western medicine which is good at coping with troubles that have clearly shown themselves.

How many kinds of shoyaku (raw drugs) are normally used in a patient's prescription?

Kanpo (which is normally drunk as a kind of strong tea after being boiled) is prescribed for each patient individually, using about 10-15 kinds of shoyaku out of about 300 in this pharmacy, for example.

Prescriptions differ depending on each patient even if they have the same symptoms. The reason is that the causes of the symptom can be different from person to person.

Counseling [diagnosis] is, therefore, important. I ask that each patient make an appointment, and I take 30 minutes to an hour for that.

Tell me about any side effects of Chinese medicine?

Another good thing about kanpo is that it has few side effects because the medicine is made of natural materials such as leaves and tree roots. If it is correctly prescribed, side effects scarcely occur.

Who are your typical patients?

The ratio of men and women is about the same. However, the ages of female patients are more diversified -- from their teens to 50s -- as opposed to male patients, who in most cases are in their 40s or older when they knock on the door of the pharmacy. Many say that they have tried Western medicine in the past, but have felt unsatisfied. Skin problems, such as atopic dermatitis, are the most frequent cases. Women's diseases and allergies such as hay fever are also common complaints among my patients.

Is there any particular condition that seems to be becoming more prevalent recently?

The number of patients with symptoms believed to be related to various stresses has been growing. Mental stresses cause stomach problems for some and depression for others, for instance. Kanpo can play an important role in healing these patients, because Chinese medicine recognizes that the mind and body deeply interact with each other.

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