Swans Commentary » swans.com April 22, 2013  



The Macrobiotic Faithful (Part I of III)


by Michael Barker



(Swans - April 22, 2013)   Macrobiotics is a dietary fad and way of life largely based upon Taoist conceptions of the infinite cosmos that involves selecting food on its alleged metaphysical properties of yin or yang. (1)Claimed by its practitioners to be over 5,000 years old, the term macrobiotic itself is of more recent historical pedigree and can be traced back to an illustrious German physician and popular writer named Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), best known for his widely-translated book, Makrobiotik: Die Kunst das Mensliche Leben zu Verlängern ("Macrobiotics: The Art of Prolonging Human Life"), which was first published in the 1790s. After writing this book Hufeland's fame continued to soar and he went to serve as a physician to the King of Prussia, and was privileged enough to count Johann Wolfgang Goethe among his many famous patients. (2)

So when George Ohsawa's Taoist-inspired therapies began to spread from Japan to the United States in the 1950s he was able to build upon the work of earlier food faddists, like Hufeland and his numerous sucessors, who had furiously promoted their dietary solutions to the world's problems. Examples of notable food faddists preceding Ohsawa in the United States include Upton Sinclair, author of The Fasting Cure (1911), and Horace Fletcher, author of Fletcherism: What it is, or, How I Became Young at Sixty (1913). There are of course distinct overlaps between various dietary fads, and Sinclair was at one time a Fletcherite, and Ohsawa himself promoted the Fletcherite fallacy that thorough mastication is the answer to good health; that is, each mouthful of food should be chewed between thirty and seventy times before swallowing. (3) As history has shown though, long life does not necessarily come to even the most ardent food faddists, and despite his life-long commitment to macrobiotics Ohsawa himself died from a heart attack at the relatively young age of seventy-two. (4) Such shortcomings have had little effect on the uptake of such whacky ideas.

What these food faddists lack in rationality and personal longevity they make up for in enthusiasm, and Ohsawa was evangelical in his zeal to spread his version of macrobiotic healing across the world -- as the solution to freedom, peace, and happiness, no less. As a part of this mission Ohsawa's first disciple to make his way from Japan to the United States was Michio Kushi, an individual who other than Ohsawa is probably most famous for spreading the macrobiotic faith. Kushi had initially journeyed to America (with the aid of Norman Cousins) in 1949 with the World Federalist Movement to continue his graduate studies in political science, but he soon decided that food was the key to world peace and so reverted back to his macrobiotic nonsense. More of Ohsawa's students then made their way to America during the 1950s, and in late 1959 Ohsawa eventually arrived in New York to spread his gospel of health.

From January 1960 onwards Ohsawa presented a series of lectures on macrobiotics at the Buddhist Academy in New York City, the notes of which became the first mimeographed edition of Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity. The book was eventually published by the Oshawa Foundation in 1965, and the following year Oshawa died. So before examining how the macrobiotic movement grew from these germinal seeds it is perhaps useful to examine the Taoist ideas from which it grew, and here perhaps no better sourcebook to examine is Ohsawa's biblical text Zen Macrobiotics.

First off Ohsawa is keen to highlight the five thousand year-old pedigree of macrobiotics, noting that his macrobiotics is the "biological and physiological application of Oriental philosophy and medicine..." Given macrobiotics' Taoist roots it is fitting that Ohsawa celebrates the foresight of the great sages of the past. But in order to make the case for building his own new macrobiotic movement, Ohsawa points out that such earlier teachings "have become obsolete, pervaded by mysticism, professionalism and superstition." His macrobiotic interpretation of life is (we are told) somehow different. (5) Yet despite such revisionist rhetoric it is clear that his writings are firmly grounded in the world of mysticism, the very practices from which he is so keen to distance himself.

Returning to natural organic ways of living is the solution to the world's problems, and to support this romantic argument he says that all living things, bar humans, "live happily in nature" without a worry in the world. We can trust Ohsawa on this "fact" as he attests that he had never met an unhappy or diseased animal in all his life: in his mind they simply did not exist, as nature is the greatest healer. His readers are admonished: "All disease, unhappiness, crime and punishment result from behavior that violates the order of the universe." (6) Man was thus born pure "in the center of heavenly happiness." All the subsequent problems facing man "come from within" and occur only because of his "blindness to life and ignorance of the structure of the universe." Let nature take its course and all will be healed... incurable disease is just "a product of the imagination." (7)

Luckily one need not wait long for diseases to be healed by the great mother of life of the infinite universe, as Ohsawa is convinced that all diseases (incurable ones or otherwise) can be "cured completely in ten days" if you follow his new and revised interpretation of macrobiotics. Ten days' commitment is all that is required, as this enables the body to have enough time to replenish and purify its blood. This is critical because: "All disease is located in or fed by our blood." Those unfortunate individuals who remain sick after attempting the proper application of macrobiotic therapy are cast aside as "the arrogant ones who do not wish to know first of all the structure of the infinite universe and its unique principle (the kingdom of heaven and its justice)." Adopting a Taoist understanding of the world is integral to the healing process, as for "the individual who knows nothing about yin-yang, life is Hell on earth." (8)

Ohsawa's macrobiotic theory has four cardinal rules that must be strictly obeyed: (1) eat natural food, (2) take no medicine, (3) permit no surgery, and (4) remain active -- inactivity is a big no-no. Other more informal rules that nevertheless "must" be followed include chewing every mouthful of food at least fifty times, and having a good appetite for sex. Deriving pleasure from sexual interplay is essential, as a failure to maintain a healthy sexual appetite and obtain joyful satisfaction "can only lead to sickness and insanity." (9) Lest there be any confusion, a "normal" sexual appetite implies "the sharing of ecstasy once a night until the age of sixty." (10) Beware though -- that healthy sexual union should only take place between a man and a woman. If you have any other sexual preferences the healing world of macrobiotics is not for you.

Likewise if feminism takes your fancy then rule macrobiotics out as well, as macrobiotics actively reinforces a spiritual patriarchy. The healthy man is yang, active and strong, while the healthy woman is yin and should be passive in sexual life. If man is too yin, which arises from eating too much yin food (e.g., sugar and fruit) "he will be very unhappy"; if a women is too yang from digesting too much yang food (animal products), unhappiness will result because their life will be "violat[ing] the basic principle of existence." Women are singled out for a special warning: if you happen to "detest a man's sexual desire," then you must have eaten too much yang food, which if not remedied will lead a woman to "become homosexual or love animals to an extreme degree." "At best," Ohsawa counsels, such yang women can hope to "love passive, feminine men who are obedient, docile and kind." Ignoring the ancient patriarchal wisdom of the yin and yang in sexual relationships would suggest that a disease-free and happy life will be withheld under Ohsawa's strict macrobiotic regime for world peace. To emphasize this he writes that: "Amost all of the unhappiness of life in general and of family life in particular comes from sexual difficulties that include impotency, a lack of joyful [hetero]sexuality or too much pathological sexual activity between man and wife." (11)

Impotency needless to say is highlighted as a chronic disease for any macrobiotic enthusiast. This is made clear through a detailed four-page exposition on methods for its treatment (when all other diseases combined have only seventeen pages allocated to their treatment). Arguably this disparity owes much to the fact that macrobiotic remedies for most diseases follow a fairly predictable formula, and can be "cured" by eating only cereals for a week or so -- which often translates to a eating the miraculous cure-all, brown rice. Usually, however, such digestive therapy is combined with the use of mild external treatments -- like the application of a ginger compress (which requires just one heaped teaspoon of dried ginger powder, a little hot water, and a cloth). Disease symptoms that can be remedied with this magical prescription of rice and ginger range from coughs, congestion, and diarrhea, to more serious ailments like appendicitis ("No macrobiotic person can be a victim of this illness"), Parkinson's disease (Ohsawa says don't worry because hereditary diseases, like Parkinson's, do not actually exist), and even cancer. With regard the latter disease Ohsawa says: "No illness is more simple to cure than cancer." Unquestioning faith -- beyond all reason -- is mandatory for such cures to work, so of course influenza is likewise treated lightly, as Ohsawa assures his readers that no "truly" macrobiotic practitioner "can be attacked by this disease." (12) The same is apparently true for AIDS, with Ohsawa's primary macrobiotic successor, Michio Kushi, arguing that AIDS is simply caused by excessive consumption of drugs, simple sugars, and fatty foods. (13) Ironically, Michio's wife and Erewhon cofounder, Aveline Kushi, died of cancer at the age of 78 after suffering from this disease for some nine years. Nevertheless, despite at one stage having actually resorted to traditional radiation therapy, the year before she passed away she penned the foreword for Mina Dobic's autobiography My Beautiful Life: How Macrobiotics Brought Me from Cancer to Radiant Health, which was published by Findhorn Press in 2000. (14)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Yau-Man Chan, "The Tao of Chinese Medicine - I" (Part II), Skepticblog, November 2, 2008.  (back)

2.  Hufeland "joined the Illuminati order at this time, having been introduced to freemasonry in Göttingen in 1783, and his deep aversion to Catholicism led him to work actively alongside Adolf Knigge (1752-96) and the order's founder, Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830)."

For a detailed exposition on the relationship between the history of the ancient art of devising the means to prolong human life from Taoist traditions right though to Hufeland, see the modern classic of gerontology, Gerald Gruman's, History of Ideas About the Prolongation of Life: The Evolution of Prolongevity Hypotheses to 1800 (Springer, 2003 [1965]). For an expanded version of the preface to this book, see Harry R. Moody, "The History of Prolongevity: A Prologue to the Quest for Life Extension in the 21st Century?"  (back)

3.  Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies: In the Names of Science (Dover, 1957), p.221. (Chapter 10, Food faddists.") Major books concerned with the need for natural food that were published around this time included Gertrude Springer's Natural Food Cookery (1955); Leonard Wickenden, Our Daily Poison: The Effects of DDT, Fluorides, Hormones, and other Chemicals on Modern Man (1955); William Longgood, The Poisons in Your Food (1960); and Beatrice Trum Hunter, The Natural Foods Cookbook (1961).

Critical books that inaugurated the consumer movement in the 1930s include Arthur Kallett and Frederick Schlink's 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs (1933), and Schlink's Eat, Drink, and Be Wary (1935). Despite their best efforts, Kallett and Schlink's consumer campaigns never really took off, as not only were the authors engineers, not scientists, but the mainstream media was not receptive, which in part may have something to do with the fact that by the mid-1930s the food industries had become its major advertisers. Organic living, along with food fads, were however given a steady boost in the following years by the work of J.I. Rodale, who published the magazine Organic Gardening and Farming and ran Rodale Press, the latter of which obtained "the bulk" of its income from publishing "publications reflecting more conventional faddist material -- the usual reports of the healthful or curative properties of new and old vitamins, foods, and regimens." As a sign of the times, with rising interest in chemical-free farming in the 1960s, Rodale's magazine saw its circulation leap from 60,000 in 1958 to 650,000 in 1970.

Another food faddist who became a darling of the mainstream media during the 1960s was Adelle Davis, who cited scientific literature to support her combination of commonsense and nonsense in best-selling books like Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit (1954). "The panel on deception and misinformation at the 1969 White House Conference called [Davis] probably the damaging single source of false nutrition information in the land..." In comparison to the 1930s such faddists now became heavily promoted by the media but also by leading scientific authority figures as well: thus Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer lent his support to Dr. Max Gerson (who claimed to cure cancer with fruit juices), and Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling engaged in a "vigourous campaign" on behalf of megavitamin therapy. Finally it is noteworthy that in the late 1970s, body fat was fixated upon and villainized by the media to such an extent that food "replaced sex as a source of guilt." Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 1993), p.18, p.162, p.165, p.166, p.212. For an overview of earlier food faddists, see Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Oxford University Press, 1988), Chapter 7 "Scientists, Pseudoscientists, and Faddists"; and Ronald Deutsch, The Nuts Among the Berries: An Expose of America's Food Fads (Ballantine, 1967).  (back)

4.  After spending a year in India exploring Ayurvedic medicine Ohsawa visited the then French Equatorial Africa in order to attempt to persuade Dr. Albert Schweitzer to adopt the macrobiotic cause. While in his company Ohsawa contracted a tropical disease known as filariasis, whereupon he refused conventional treatment. When Ohsawa died in 1966 his doctor noted that his heart attack had been caused by a filarial infestation. Jack Raso, Mystical Diets: Paranormal, Spiritual, and Occult Nutrition Practices (Prometheus Books, 1993), p. 28. Raso's chapter on macrobiotics was first published as "A Kushi Seminar for Professionals" in the May/June 1990 issue of Nutrition Forum.  (back)

5.  George Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity (Oshawa Foundation, 1995 [1960]), p.20.  (back)

6.  Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics, p.21, p.26. "Birds, fish, insects and microbes along with all herbs and trees live in complete satisfaction without knowing the fear of sickness, old age or death." (p.46) The romantic view of nature is critical to the support of macrobiotic mythology. Macrobiotic enthusiasts wish to return to the good-old-days (particularly before the Industrial Revolution) when the poor ate "traditional" diets composed of wholegrains and local vegetables. Following mythological traditions that saw people eat intuitively in harmony with the natural world.  (back)

7.  Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics, p.27. The blame for ill health or injustice is firmly placed on the suffering individual. Moreover one should apparently be thankful for the oppressor -- like for example a slave-master or imperial overlord -- because "A strong, cruel enemy is particularly valuable; without him, one becomes idle, weak and stupid." (p.46) Loving thy enemy is critical, as "if there is even one person or thing in this world that you cannot like, you can never be happy." (p.47) Likewise, if you do not cure yourself by depending on the aid of others then "your cure is incomplete, for you have lost your independence and your freedom." (p.47) This flows from Ohsawa's Social Darwinist misreading of the natural world, which he claims rests on total freedom from others, and total independence of action. In reality of course the relationships between all flora and fauna are closely related and highly dependent upon one another in all manner of ways (see Ashley Montagu's book Darwin, Competition and Co-operation).  (back)

8.  Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics, p.26, p.28, p.112.  (back)

9.  Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics, p.27, p.53, p.35. "If you wish to assimilate the macrobiotic philosophy as quickly as possible, chew each mouthful one hundred to one hundred and fifty times." Providing further encouragement to his followers Ohsawa adds: "I know of a Japanese girl who chewed a piece of onion thirteen hundred times." (p.53)  (back)

10.  Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics, p.136. Hetereosexuals who partake in a macrobiotic lifestyle can enjoy daily sexual congress "possibly to the age of eighty." To encourage his homophobic community further, Ohsawa adds: "One of the greatest Buddhist monks of Japan, Rennyo (1415-1499), left a three-year-old child when he died at the age of eight-four. He had twenty-seven children in all." (p.136) No comment is made on evident dangers that such reproductive activities would have implied for women who practiced macrobiotics over the past 5,000 years, or of the fact that such a stellar monk who presumably would have been immune to disease as a result of his macrobiotic lifestyle only lives to the age of eighty-four, when my gran who lives off cream cakes and sweets has already reached the mighty age of ninety.  (back)

11.  Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics, p.137, p.138.  (back)

12.  Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics, Chapter 10, "Suggestions for macrobiotic treatment of disease symptoms." On the nonexistence of hereditary diseases see p.159.

The editor of the 1995 edition of Zen Macrobiotics adds a warning that Ohsawa's prescribed treatments should "be read as one individual's free expression of his views -- not as medical prescriptions." Although certainly not made clear in Ohsawa's work, which necessitates the editor's numerous editorial interventions to warn current readers not to accept Ohsawa's arguments, the editor notes: "It must be obvious to the reader that a diagnosed disease that has progressed, primarily through a lifetime of inadequate nutrition, to a point beyond cure cannot be reversed by the simple expedient of a diet." (p.120) This is despite the fact that Ohsawa makes it clear that he believes the symptoms of all manner of diseases can be cured by a transition to a macrobiotic diet.  (back)

13.  Raso, Mystical Diets, p. 40. Kushi was the coauthor of AIDS, Macrobiotics, and Natural Immunity (Japan Publications, 1990). Another dangerous book that promoted such nonsense is Tom Monte's The Way of Hope: Michio Kushi's Anti-AIDS Program (Grand Central Publishing, 1989). Likewise even anti-scientific medical doctors have jumped on the macrobiotic bandwagon, as demonstrated by Edward Esko's edited collection, Doctors Look at Macrobiotics (Japan Publications, 1989). Typical of the contributors to this book is the former president of the American Holistic Medical Association, Christiane Northup, who since then has attained great fame and has the #1 New York Times bestseller, The Wisdom of Menopause.  (back)

14.  Associated Press, "Aveline Kushi; Leader in Macrobiotic Diet," Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2001. Mina Dobic's macrobiotic clients include many well known Hollywood celebrities including Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Madonna, Guy Richie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Blythe Danner, Alicia Silverstone, Steven Seagal, Rachel Weisz, and Vanessa Marcil.  (back)


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Published April 22, 2013