Kampo Medicine

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Kampo medicine


Kampo (sometimes spelled kanpo) is a Japanese variant of Chinese traditional medicine that involves the extensive use of herbs. The name is derived from the Japanese symbols kan, which means China and po, which means medicine. Kampo treatment has become very much integrated in the Japanese health care system. It is widely available from hospitals and physicians there, and is the most popular form of complementary health care in contemporary Japan. Kampo herbal preparations are sold by many Japanese pharmacies. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that Japan has the highest per capita consumption of herbal medicine in the world. In addition to herbal treatments, Kampo practitioners may also administer acupuncture, moxibustion , and manipulative therapy.


Oriental traditional medicine has employed herbs for almost 4,000 years. Much of the earliest literature about the subject comes from ancient China, where wealthy families hired herbalists who were paid only when everyone in the family enjoyed good health. Kampo medicine is a form of traditional Chinese herbalism, which came to Japan about 16 centuries ago and was refined over the years by Japanese practitioners. At Shoso-in, a famous historical site in western Japan, a 1,200-year-old cache of medicinal herbs was discovered, stored n air-tight wooden boxes. Researchers found that many of those samples still retained full medicinal potency. Western medicine started to enter Japan with Jesuit missionaries and Dutch traders during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but never succeeded in fully displacing traditional practices. In recent years, there has been a considerable resurgence of Kampo's popularity.


Kampo preparations are used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including eczema , atopic dermatitis , and gynecological problems. Other applications include allergies, rheumatoid arthritis , chronic hepatitis , diabetic retinopathy, bronchial asthma , endometrial cancer, collagen disease, bedwetting, colds, nausea , and high cholesterol levels.


Like other forms of Oriental traditional medicine, Kampo is based on concepts quite foreign to Western medical thinking. These concepts include In-You (negative and positive); Gogyou (five lines); Ki (air); Sui (water); and Ketu (blood). Unlike Western medicine, which thinks largely in terms of diseases affecting specific organs, Kampo emphasizes identifying patterns of "whole body" symptoms.

Kampo herbal treatments are divided into three basic groups, related to urination, sweating, and defecation. Most prescriptions consist of a combination of crude drugs used to treat whatever disharmony is detected. Kampo remedies usually take longer to work than standard pharmaceuticals. A typical trial period for a new prescription is three months. Patients may continue taking some prescriptions for years. Examples of crude drugs used in Kampo preparations include glycyrrhiza (licorice ), rhubarb, and ginseng.

Since the 1970s, Kampo has been recognized by Japan's medical regulators, and Kampo herbs are included in the list of reimbursable drugs under the country's national health insurance plan. During the 1990s and continuing into the new millennium, Japanese officials required recertification of a number of Kampo drugs, insisting that their safety and effectiveness be reevaluated. Japanese pharmacists are allowed to manufacture a limited number of drugs themselves. Of these licensed products, 50% are Kampo products, according to the Japan Pharmaceutical Association.


As with all Oriental herbal remedies, persons should use only Kampo preparations obtained from a reliable source. Serious problems have arisen when Oriental herbal prescriptions were misidentified or contained adulterants. The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine in the United Kingdom recommends that patent medicines mixing Western and Oriental herbs be avoided, together with any patent preparation containing heavy metals. Some patients have developed hepatitis after taking patent-medicine tablets based on traditional Oriental formulas. An investigation revealed that the tablets did not contain the complete herb, but rather a chemical isolated from a single herb. This practice contradicts the most basic principles of Oriental traditional medicine, which uses combinations of whole herbs. Because of Kampo's complexity, self-treatment is usually not advised; consulting a knowledgeable practitioner is essential. Some patients have experienced serious, even fatal, kidney or liver problems after treatment with Oriental herbs. Anyone with a history of disease in those organs should not be treated without accompanying blood tests to monitor their function. It has also been suggested that patients who consume considerable amounts of alcohol should receive liver function tests. It is important that patients be monitored after starting Oriental herb treatments to check for signs of liver or kidney problems.

Side effects

Because Kampo and other forms of Oriental traditional medicine are so old, practitioners say that most side effects were identified long ago and so are easily avoided by an experienced practitioner. Some Oriental herbal preparations, however, are known toxins that continue to be prescribed because of their beneficial effects. These must be used with extreme care, employing only low doses under the direction of a highly competent and certified practitioner. In most cases, these preparations should be used only in a hospital setting. In addition, some people may have an allergic hypersensitivity to certain herbs.

Research & general acceptance

In Japan, Kampo treatment is studied and frequently prescribed by medical doctors. As many as 70% of Japanese gynecologists are said to employ Kampo, particularly in menopausal patients.

Training & certification

In Japan, Kampo drugs are widely available from medical doctors and pharmacists. In the rest of the world, Kampo preparations and practitioners are largely unregulated.



Blackwell, Richard. "Adverse events following certain Chinese herbal medicines and the response of the profession." Journal of Chinese Medicine. 50:12.


Japan Society for Oriental Medicine. Nihonbashi Nakadori Building 4F 2-2-20. Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0027. 81-3-3274-5060.


Kampo Today. c/o Michael Solomon Associates, Inc. 516 Fifth Avenue, Suite 801. New York, NY 10036. (212) 764-4760. http://www.tsumura.co.jp/english/kthp/today.htm.

David Helwig