Inside the “cult” Zen macrobiotic movement and the man who wanted to free people from disease

  • In the middle of the 20th century, George Ohsawa founded the macrobiotic diet.
  • The nutritional philosophy emphasizes natural foods to “liberate” people from disease, Ohsawa says.

“Why are there so many hospitals and sanatoriums, drugs and cures, so many mental and physical illnesses in modern Western civilization? Why is there a need for so many prisons, large numbers of police, huge air, sea and land forces?” George Ohsawa, founder of the macrobiotic diet, wondered.

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

The idea that human disease is the cause of the problems of the modern world is the driving force behind the macrobiotic movement that Ohsawa founded in the mid-20th century. Ohsawa’s four-part prescription for curing the disease was: natural food, no drugs, no surgery, and no inactivity.

Ohsawa claimed to have been cured of tuberculosis by following 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 paralysis or all kinds cured by dialectical macrobiotics in ten days or a few weeks”.

The movement garnered 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 Erevhon in Boston in 1966.

Erevhon, the natural food grocery chain, has amassed a cult following among loyal customers and celebrities.Sarah Reingevirtz/MediaNevs Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Encouraging movement

Ohsawa was born in 1893 to a poor samurai family in the town of Shingo, near southern Japan. Plagued with health problems such as tuberculosis and ulcers, Ohsawa, whose birth name was Nyoichi Sakurazawa, joined the Shokuiku movement—a philosophy and government policy promoting food education—around 1913.

The Shokuiku movement was pioneered by Sagen Ishizuka, an Imperial Army physician who expounded the advantages of traditional medicine over Western medicine. Ishizuka particularly emphasized the importance of a balanced diet, earning the nicknames “Doctor vs. Doctor” and “Doctor Daikon” for his dietary recipes of vegetables as a cure for various ailments.

Influenced by these food-centered teachings, Ohsawa went to Europe to spread his philosophy. In Paris, he dropped his birth name and adopted “Ohsava” as his surname, supposedly from the French expression “oh ca va”, meaning “I’m fine”.

In 1931, Ohsawa wrote “The One Principle,” expounding the basic law of yin and yang — rooted in the Chinese philosophy of harmony — “for the benefit of the West.”

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Macrobiotic restaurant in France.Thierry Orban/Sigma via Getty Images

Food as freedom

It was in Zen Macrobiotics, which Ohsawa wrote in 1960, that he explicitly formalized his macrobiotic philosophy for a Western audience.

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

Only through health can people achieve true freedom, says Ohsawa, who said he wants to “re-establish a kingdom” where there is no forced labor, crime or punishment.

This utopian, almost biblical, kingdom was called “Erevhon” by Samuel Butler and “Wonderland”, wrote Osawa, and “entry is safe and free if they live macrobiotically and understand the philosophy of oriental medicine”.

Firm strictures

“Zen Macrobiotics” is full of absolute statements, such as “sexual appetite and joyful pleasure are the essential condition of happiness.”

“If a man or woman has no appetite for sex or experiences no pleasure, he or she is alienated from the dialectical law of life, yin-yang,” Ohsawa wrote. “Ignorant violation of this law can only lead to sickness and insanity.”

Ohsawa would say that “sick people should be sent to prison and criminals should be sent to hospital,” Aveline Kushi, who founded the Erevhon store, wrote in her memoirs.

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

The rigid strictures of Ohsawa’s philosophy have led some to view the macrobiotic movement as a cult.

In 1966, inspectors from the Federal Food and Drug Administration raided what the New York Times called a “Japanese cult food store” owned by the Ohsawa Foundation in Manhattan. Authorities said macrobiotic diets caused death and starvation, according to reports at the time.

As recently as 2018, Italian authorities cracked down on what they described as a macrobiotic “sect” led by Mario Pianesi, as previously reported by The Guardian. Authorities began investigating Pianesi after a woman told police he falsely promised a diet would cure her illness.

Pianesi, who said he was inspired by Ohsava, manipulated followers of the macrobiotic diet by strictly controlling their diet, forcing them to make donations and work for free at the association’s macrobiotic centers and restaurants, according to Italian police. Some members’ weight dropped to as low as 35 kg, or 77 pounds.

As for Osawa himself, he died of a heart attack at the age of 72 in 1966. In her memoirs, Kushi attributed the death to his attempts to experiment with a macrobiotic drink. The drinks “may have been too yin” for his heart and eventually killed him, she wrote.

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