The word Kanpo is Japanese meaning the method (Po) of the Han (Kan) Chinese, and refers to the use of traditional Chinese (herbal) medicine, contrasting it to the method of Western medicine.

The roots of Kanpo go back to Shen Nongthe legendary god of agriculture and Huang Di the mythical Yellow emperor and his minister Chi Po. Some of the earliest writing on herbal theory can be found in the Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperors Cannon on Internal Medicine) thought to have been compiled around 200 BCE.

Though arguably it is Zhang Zhongjing’s Shang Han Za Bing Lun (Discussion on Cold Induced Disorders and Miscellaneous Diseases) from around 200AD, later to be split into the Shang Han Lun (Sho Kan Ron) and Jingui Yaolue (Kinki Youraku) that is the seen by Kanpo practitioners as the root text.

The text lays out key formulas and their families that correspond to specific patterns of ill health that can be triggered by climatic changes and/or internal weakness. The text stresses the need to correctly identify the correct stage or pattern (known as the 6 confirmations or divisions) and even gives instructions for correcting misdiagnosis and mistaken treatment. Though later texts and formulas are also made use of (by such famous doctors as Sun Si Miao and Li Dong Yuan) Kanpo tends to rely on older formulas of the early period of Chinese medical history rather than more recent innovations.

A key characteristic of Kanpo is its person centred approach. Following traditional East Asian thinking, the signs and symptoms that are used to decide the formula do not describe a disease but a pattern or Sho. This refers to the persons total experience of (ill) health not only the presenting complaint but also their constitutional tendencies and general robustness. Any number of Western ‘diseases’ can correspond to a Sho, and different Sho can arise for any particular ‘disease’.

The Sho is reached via the traditional 4 diagnosic methods (looking, listening, asking, palpation [of pulse and abdomen]) and though it utilises the traditional concepts of the 8 principles and vital substances (Qi, Blood, Fluids); in general Kanpo is notable for its minimal use of abstract theory and a pragmatic focus on the relationship between a given formula and the pattern of signs and symptoms it is designed to resolve.

As a consequence formulas are seen as the basic building block and are rarely modified.