Friday, November 28, 2008

Blind Japanese holistic health practioner finally receives accommodation for California licensing exam

From the San Diego Weekly Reader in California:

Hiro Iwamoto (pictured) loves to sail. Not so unusual — except for one apparent drawback. He is blind. Before moving from Japan to San Diego two years ago, Iwamoto led a Tokyo team to the Blind Sailing National Championship in Newport, Rhode Island. “It isn’t strange,” he tells me. “We go up on the bow and climb the mast like all sailors do. Someone who is sighted comes with us, and we just say, ‘Tell us what you see.’ ”

When it comes to his vocation, however, Iwamoto hardly needs the help. For 20 years, he has practiced manual therapies, a traditional career path for the blind in Japan. And he taught at the Tsukuba University School of Acupuncture and Manual Therapy for the Visually Impaired north of Tokyo for 14 years. So it’s a shame that he has experienced so much difficulty continuing his work in San Diego.

Iwamoto has lived in the United States once before. In his early 20s, he studied at San Francisco State University. There he majored in special education as a complement to a bachelor’s degree in counseling he had already earned in Japan.

When Iwamoto returned to Japan, he took a conversation class to keep up his English. Through the class, he met an American woman whom he later married.

“We first got to know each other by hiking together,” he says. “And she is a sailor too.” Three years ago, the couple had a daughter, and they decided that San Diego would be a better place to raise her than Tokyo.

In the transition from Japan to San Diego, there were some hurdles to jump in the alternative healing arts. But Iwamoto figured that, given his background, he could easily start out as a holistic health practitioner. The license, granted by the San Diego Police Department, requires the applicant to pass a national exam in anatomy, physiology, nutrition, and acupressure.

Iwamoto long ago passed a similar exam in Japan. It was based on four years of training. A national board, not a city police department, grants manual therapy licenses in Japan. Most observers believe that San Diego’s police, rather than, say, the county health department, play the licensing role here on account of the city’s long experience with massage parlor prostitution.

I ask Iwamoto if there is a similar problem in Japan. “There may be prostitution among those who do not train,” he says. “But the long training required of manual therapists eliminates those who would be likely to do it.”

Iwamoto passed the American exam with flying colors. It was getting the chance to take the test that was a problem. He sent in an application a year ago. When he didn’t hear back, he called to check what had happened. The national testing center said they never received the application and that he should send in a new one. Shortly after sending it, the center returned his original application with the explanation that it had no way to test a blind person.

But accommodations were eventually made, and Iwamoto was allowed assistance to take the exam. A reader called out the question, and Iwamoto answered. The reader then typed the answers into a computer and sent them in. It worked well enough, except that pronunciation of terminology made for rough communication between test taker and reader.

At the end of August, Iwamoto received his holistic health practitioner’s license. He will now prepare to take an acupuncturist’s exam required to practice in the state of California. And eventually, in order to open a clinic in Oriental medicine, Iwamoto will have to master Chinese herbal medicine, a field he has yet to study.

In the meantime, Iwamoto has been teaching at the Meridian International School of Health Sciences on Morena Boulevard. He has also built up a client base around San Diego. Upon his arrival in town, Iwamoto obtained a massage technician’s license to give manual therapy, which includes traditional massage. He says his preferred technique is called Jin Shin Jyutsu, a combination of acupressure, shiatsu, and anma, techniques that manipulate pressure points. Jin Shin Jyutsu lightly touches two pressure points at once, holding the connection for a short time as though allowing electricity to jump from one to the other.

Without a clinic, Iwamoto is forced to visit his clients in their homes or offices. How does he get there? “I take the bus and trolley everywhere,” he says. “I go from Chula Vista to Rancho Bernardo. I’m sure I ride more miles on the bus than any other visually impaired person in the city.”

It helps that Iwamoto lives in Kearny Mesa, a central area. But buses present huge obstacles to the visually impaired. Take just one problem. Iwamoto explains how it unfolds at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. “I am looking for a certain numbered bus to take me east on Broadway, and I can hear that a bus has pulled up,” he says. “I ask people nearby if that is my bus. No, they say, and as they get on, my bus pulls up behind the first one. Then, instead of pulling up to the stop, my bus just drives away behind the first one, and I’m left standing there without realizing until later what happened.”

Walking across wide streets is of course a greater hazard. “The U.S. is recognized as being the friendliest nation to the disabled,” Iwamoto tells me. "But not to the visually impaired. In Tokyo, there is beeping at every signal. Only some have beepers here.”

While waiting in Kearny Mesa to meet Iwamoto, I witnessed what he meant. He had to cross two streets, one a wide section of Mercury Street, at an intersection that had no beepers. “I can only listen to the traffic flow,” he says after he arrives and we introduce ourselves. “I used to have only a cane. But soon after I came here, I had several close calls and realized that I needed a guide dog, which they don’t use in Japan. Now I have Tawny,” says Iwamoto, pointing to the female blond lab at his feet. “At intersections, I have to give her commands because she doesn’t see the red and green lights. But she is trained to be disobedient, too, if she can see traffic that would make it dangerous to cross.”

Iwamoto shows me his laptop computer, which has a strip at its keyboard base for reading braille. It has software that translates email messages and other text into either sound or braille. “Before email, think what I had to do to write a love letter,” he says with a laugh.

The intrepid battles Iwamoto wages with San Diego transportation testify to what he calls his mission. He wants to teach people manual therapies and Oriental medicine. He got the notion after he realized he had to develop a positive attitude about his blindness.

Were you blind from birth? I ask.

“No, it happened suddenly when I was an adolescent. Even though my sight had been weak, nobody could explain why it happened. Although I am a Christian, my mother is Buddhist. Every week she still goes to the temple five times to pray. It’s to overcome bad things she thinks our ancestors must have done to cause my blindness.
“And shortly before my dad died a few years ago, he wanted to set me up so that I would never have to work again. But I had learned to be grateful for my blindness. It has enabled me to develop sensitive fingers for manual therapy and other techniques that sighted people do not always understand.” An example would be the way Oriental practitioners take the pulse so delicately that they can detect trouble in the liver or the kidneys.

How do you explain the advantage of Oriental medicine?

“We look at the whole person, the body as its own universe, and by making the ch’i, or vital energy, flow better along meridians all through the body, we help people feel better. We also focus on prevention. Western medicine tends to divide the body into parts. But it has its strengths. Some of my colleagues used to tell me that sending patients to a doctor will kill them. But if I am palpating and I detect there might be a tumor, I refer patients to a doctor. I don’t diagnose cancer and other diseases. The doctor does that with MRIs or other techniques. At the same time, there is a doctor who sends me patients. She wants me to help control their pain. Oriental and Western medicine can cooperate.”

But many Western doctors dismiss Oriental medicine as palliative only. Iwamoto would like to help them understand. He reminds me again of the sensitivity in his fingers. And he begins thinking of sailing, his other passion. For the doctors, he says, “It could be the reverse of our blind situation on the boats. The doctors could say, ‘Tell us what you feel.’ ”