4 Questions and Answers About Kampo Medicine

Have your heard of Kampo? This Japanese integrative medicine relies on a variety of herbs to restore the body’s balance and treat a multitude of troublesome conditions. In this, it resembles traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), from which it originates. But unlike TCM, which goes back more than 2,000 years and is offered by more than 14,000 practitioners in the U.S. alone, the practice of Kampo arose in Japan somewhere around the fifth or sixth centuries and is far less known in this country. It is, however, widely practiced in Japan by medical doctors and is an integral part of the healthcare system there.

  1. What is the main way in which Kampo differs from traditional Chinese medicine? Modern Kampo focuses on a smaller subset of the vast array of herbal formulas offered in traditional Chinese medicine, says Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Oregon. This is because after World War II, the Japanese national healthcare system agreed to reimburse citizens who were prescribed these particular herb formulas. As a result, pharmaceutical manufacturing firms switched to producing these formulas, researchers undertook studies of them, and doctors were advised to prescribe them to their patients.
  2. What issues does Kampo treat? Kampo believers say the medicine can help a variety of conditions, typically the common cold, constipation, and muscle aches. However, the exact herbs prescribed depend heavily upon the particular patient’s medical history and symptoms. For instance, to treat constipation, the herbs prescribed would depend on whether the patient’s condition was caused by a lack of moisture or weak bowel muscles, Dharmananda explains.

    In this country, Kampo is used as a complement to traditional Western medicine, often to reduce what may be harsh side effects of mainstream drugs, says Hiromi Kagawa, Ph.D., a licensed acupuncturist and biochemist who runs her own Kampo clinic in Sunnyvale, California. So Kampo would not be used to treat cancer but might be prescribed to help with the nausea experienced by chemotherapy patients. Kagawa acknowledges that Kampo herbs, like all herbs used in any type of treatment, are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may have side effects (although they’re usually minor).
  3. What kind of training do Kampo practitioners have? In Japan, all Kampo practitioners have medical degrees. U.S. practitioners are often acupuncturists who may have received their Kampo training from other Kampo practitioners. Licensing laws vary by state.
  4. Is Kampo better than traditional Chinese medicine? As with all therapies, what works for someone may not work for someone else. People of Japanese origin may be used to Kampo and thus seek it out when necessary, while others may prefer traditional Chinese medicine—or something entirely different.
  5. Where can I learn more about Kampo? Websites that talk about traditional Chinese medicine may offer information about Kampo and its uses. As far as finding a practitioner, alternative-medicine providers, acupuncturists or clinics that offer traditional Chinese medicine are your best bets.

Subhuti Dharmananda, PhD, and Hiromi Kagawa, PhD, reviewed this article.


Dhatmananda, Subhuti, Ph.D. Email conversation with source. May 10, 2015.

Kagawa, Hiromi, Ph.D. Phone conversation with source. May 12, 2015.

"Traditional Chinese Medicine." University of Minnesota. Accessed on May 19, 2015.

"What Is the Difference Between Kampo and TCM?" Center for Kampo Medicine, Keio University School of Medicine. Accessed on May 14, 2015.

Dharmananda, Subhuti. "Kampo Medicine: The Practice of Chinese Herbal Medicine in Japan." Institute for Traditional Medicine. Accessed May 14, 2015.