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Inside the 'cult-like' zen macrobiotic movement and the man who wanted to free humans from sickness

Inside the 'cult-like' zen macrobiotic movement and the man who wanted to free humans from sickness
  • In the mid-20th century, George Ohsawa founded the macrobiotics diet.

  • The diet's philosophy emphasizes natural foods to 'free' humans from sickness, according to Ohsawa.

  • The macrobiotics movement fueled the founding of the grocery chain Erewhon and groups accused of being cults.

"Why are there so many hospitals and sanatoriums, drugs and medicines, so many mental and physical illnesses in modern Western civilization? Why is there the need for so many prisons, the great numbers of police, the vast air, sea, and land forces?" George Ohsawa, the founder of the macrobiotics diet, wondered.

The answer behind these ailments, he said, is simple: "We are sick, physiologically and mentally," Ohsawa wrote in his 1960 book, "Zen Macrobiotics."

The idea that human sickness is the cause of the modern world's problems is the driving force behind the macrobiotics movement that Ohsawa founded in the mid-20th century. Ohsawa's four-part prescription to curing sickness was: natural food, no medicine, no surgery, and no inactivity.

Ohsawa claimed he cured himself of tuberculosis by adhering to a macrobiotic diet, which emphasizes whole grains, soy, and vegetables. In "Zen Macrobiotics," he wrote that he saw "thousands of incurable diseases such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, leprosy, and paralyses or all kinds cured by dialectical macrobiotics in ten days or a few weeks."

The movement amassed an international following of thousands of followers, fueling the New Age movement in the US in the late 1960s. Among Ohsawa's students were Aveline and Michio Kushi, who founded Erewhon in Boston in 1966.

People come and go at the high-end grocery store Erewhon during their Pasadena opening.
Erewhon, a natural-food grocery chain, has amassed cult followings among loyal shoppers and celebrities.Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Fueling a movement

Ohsawa was born in 1893 to a poor samurai family in Shingu City, near the south of Japan. Beset with health problems like tuberculosis and ulcers, Ohsawa, whose birth name was Nyoichi Sakurazawa, joined the Shokuiku movement — a philosophy and government policy promoting food education — in around 1913.

The Shokuiku movement was pioneered by Sagen Ishizuka, an imperial army doctor who expounded the benefits of traditional medicine over western medicine. Ishizuka especially stressed the importance of balanced food, gaining the nicknames "Anti-Doctor Doctor" and "Doctor Daikon" for his dietary prescriptions of vegetables as cures for various ailments.

Influenced by these food-centric teachings, Ohsawa took to Europe to spread his philosophy. In Paris, he shed his birth name and adopted "Ohsawa" as his surname, supposedly from the French term "oh ça va," which means "I'm doing fine."

In 1931, Ohsawa wrote "The Unique Principle," outlining the fundamental law of yin and yang — rooted in the Chinese philosophy of harmony — "for the benefit of the West."

A macrobiotic restaurant in France
A macrobiotic restaurant in France.Thierry Orban/Sygma via Getty Images

Food as freedom

It was in "Zen Macrobiotics," which Ohsawa wrote in 1960, that he explicitly formalized his macrobiotics philosophy for western audiences.

"Macrobiotics is neither an empirical folk medicine nor a mystical, palliative, religious, scientific, spiritual, symptomatic technique. It is the biological and physiological application of Oriental philosophy and medicine," he wrote.

Only through the health could people achieve true freedom, according to Ohsawa, who declared that he wanted to "re-establish a kingdom" where there's no forced labor, crime, or punishment.

This utopian, almost biblical, kingdom has been called "Erewhon" by Samuel Butler and "Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll, Ohsawa wrote, and "admission is certain and free if they live macrobiotically and understand the philosophy of Oriental medicine."

Rigid strictures

"Zen Macrobiotics" is rife with absolute statements, like "sexual appetite and joyful satisfaction are an essential condition of happiness."

"If a man or woman has no appetite for sex or experiences no pleasure, he or she is estranged from the dialectical law of life, yin-yang," Ohsawa wrote. "Violation of this law through ignorance can only lead to sickness and insanity."

Ohsawa would say that "sick people should be sent to jail and criminals should be sent to the hospital," Aveline Kushi, who founded the grocery store Erewhon, wrote in her memoir.

Michio Kushi and his wife Midori Hayashi Kushi at their home in Brookline, Mass.
Michio Kushi and his wife Midori Hayashi Kushi, also known as Aveline, at their home in Brookline, Mass.Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The rigid strictures of Ohsawa's philosophy led some to view the macrobiotics movement as a cult.

In 1966, inspectors of the Federal Food and Drug Administration raided what the New York Times called "a Japanese cult diet store" owned by the Ohsawa Foundation in Manhattan. Authorities said the macrobiotic diets had caused deaths and starvation, according to reports at the time.

More recently in 2018, Italian authorities broke up what they described as a macrobiotic "sect" led by Mario Pianesi, as The Guardian previously reported. Authorities began investigating Pianesi after a woman told police he falsely promised that the diet would cure her illness.

Pianesi, who said he was inspired by Ohsawa, manipulated followers of the macrobiotic diet by strictly controlling their diets, coercing them into giving donations and working for free in the association's macrobiotic centers and restaurants, according to Italian police. Some members' weights dropped to as low as 35 kg, or 77 lbs.

As for Ohsawa himself, he died of heart attack at the age of 72 in 1966. In her memoir, Kushi attributed the death to his attempts to experiment with a macrobiotic drink. The drinks "may have been too yin" for his heart, ultimately killing him, she wrote.

Read the original article on Insider