Wataru Ohashi was born in Hiroshima, Japan, in June of 1944. Even though he and his family lived in the rural area and were not in the city when the atomic bomb fell the following year, they did not escape the ravages of war. He was born prematurely and malnourished because of this mother’s poor health. As a baby he was fragile with a weak constitution. Then, at less than two years of age, his short life was threatened by dehydration from cholera, which spread through the town where he lived. Many children his age died. Because no Western-style medicine was available, his family turned to Oriental medicine The ancient healing art of moxibustion, commonly called “heat acupuncture,” saved his life. He still bears the round scars of the moxa burned directly on his skin, on CV 46 and BL 23. He regards these scars as “Seals of Life.” This early childhood event set the direction that Ohashi’s life would eventually take — one of a career in healing, although that path would not show itself until he had explored other options.
Ohashi attended Chuo University in Tokyo, where he majored in American literature. At the same time he became interested in the type of healing that had saved his life and decided to take a course in shiatsu. He was also interested in going to the United States to experience African-American history, literature and the civil rights movement that he studied at university. In spite of his family’s objections he made plans to go there after graduating from college.
Thus began his journey in 1970 to the United States. A journey that would take him much further than he ever dreamed at the time. He spent two weeks on a boat to reach California, and then another week by Greyhound bus to reach the South, where he enrolled at Tougaloo College, a predominantly African-American college outside Jackson, Mississippi, to improve his English. He later transferred to Howard University in Washington, DC, but studied for only 6 months, as he found living in Washington, DC, offered many different kinds of education that interested him more. To support himself, Ohashi fell back on the old healing techniques he knew and started giving shiatsu sessions at a health club located in the Watergate complex. Among his clients were then US Attorney General John Mitchell and Governor William Egan of Alaska.
One day, Ohashi was called to the Kennedy Center where the American Ballet Theatre was rehearsing. Their principle dancer, Ivan Nagy, had injured himself and was in a great deal of pain. Ohashi gave Nagy a few sessions and within two days the dancer was back on stage. And so began a long relationship between Ohashi and the dance world. The connection was so strong that Ohashi soon moved to New York City to be close to his new-found clients and friends.
The Growing Years
“Where do ideas come from?” A profound question. Usually, it’s a small group of people, not necessarily connected, that influence a “movement.” The human development movement of the 1970s was just beginning when Ohashi arrived in New York. Without realizing it, he became one of the people in the US who would have such an influence. Many of today’s ideas about healing and alternative health began with this “handful of people” who were exploring a new lifestyle. Ohashi’s ideas and teaching can be found in many modalities.
He knew that giving sessions one-on-one would only get his health message to a few. Recognizing that teaching was the way to get information out to many, in 1973 Ohashi started the Shiatsu Dojo on the upper west side, with two “secretaries” who wanted to study with him and help him establish his school. They helped him to understand English, how to maneuver through city and state bureaucracy in order to incorporate the school, and with registration and promotion.
Within two years, Ohashi was so busy with students and clients that he outgrew the small space where he started. He needed to look for new space. He took out a map of New York and made a square extending from 60th Street to 50th Street and from 7th Avenue to Lexington. His assistant exclaimed, “But, Ohashi, that’s the most expensive area! You can’t afford it!” “I can’t afford anything,” Ohashi calmly replied. “So I can’t afford not to be there.” Within ten days, in 1974, Ohashi moved to 55th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, in the prestigious Midtown district. It was the second floor of a midtown brownstone. There he established the Shiatsu Education Center of America, which he founded as a nonprofit organization.
Needing instructors to help him, he decided to start training his students to teach. His first instructor was Pauline Sasaki. In the summer of 1975, Ohashi obtained a ride with one of his students to travel to a yoga retreat in upstate New York. A young woman along for the ride was in the publishing field and would later become his wife, Bonnie Harrington.
Ohashi first published a 5×4-foot Meridian and Tsubo chart in 5 colors (the colors of the Five Elements), which received a design award. He had already started writing Do-It-Yourself Shiatsu, which was published in 1976, and is still in print. Soon this book was translated into German, French and Italian, and organizations started to invite Ohashi to teach in Europe – first to Eschweiler, Germany in 1977; then to Switzerland the next year, and soon after to Italy. His book and those of other American writers were introducing Europe to the human potential movement. Within a few years, Ohashi began sending his American instructors to teach the entire curriculum. Soon Europeans started traveling to New York City to study the entire program. Ohashi was living up to his name, which means “Big Bridge.” Western Europeans were traveling west to study in America, and Ohashi was traveling east to teach in Europe. Many were crossing the bridges that Ohashi built.
This was just the beginning: next month we’ll discuss The Evolution of how Ohashi transformed shiatsu into the entirely new, elevated form we know now as Ohashiatsu®.