Health post: Beautiful capillaries

In Osaka, I met with Dan Takeno of Kekkan Bijin, which means “vascular beauty.” His company’s device is essentially a microscope that observes peoples’ blood flow in a non-invasive 5-minute procedure. The scope focuses on the capillaries under the thin skin around people’s fingernails, and it displays the nature of the blood flowing through them in real time (while also digitizing the image to capture information in numerical form). The idea is that this procedure will indicate health; healthier people will have straight, clear capillaries through which blood flows easily, and less healthy people will have twisted, jagged and/or thick capillaries (perhaps indicating a blockage in a particularly thick spot).

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Mr. Takeno with the device, plugged into an LCD monitor.

Takeno’s father developed the device in 2001 after being diagnosed with cancer. He decided to supplement his cancer treatment with alternative healing, taking supplements, and drinking more water. Takeno’s father wanted to know if and how these alternative treatments were affecting his health but could find no quantitative measure. He became frustrated that there was no easy, trackable indicator of his general health – something he could have been watching even before his diagnosis. Doctors always check blood pressure and body temperature, said Takeno, but this doesn’t add up to a simple, one-stop “health index.” To get a full snapshot, his father would have to go to the health diagnosis center, spend $500 for a complete checkup, and lose half a day’s worth of time. How could this be simpler, cheaper, and faster?

Takeno’s father ultimately collaborated with a man named Dr. Ogawa, who started research 6 years ago on the potential of capillaries being an indicator for health. Takeno’s father read his book and decided to apply the idea to a machine. He was successful, selling 2,000 machines to Eastern medicine (EM) pharmacies and eventually to doctors. “Eastern medicine?” I asked. Well, Takeno replied, the device is still based on non-Western ideas. Sitting in an office in one of Japan’s busiest metropolises, meeting about a health device that looked like a scientific instrument, I was surprised that we were discussing non-traditional medicine.

The nearby Sukunahikona Shrine, showcasing its health products for sale.

Takeno told me that Eastern medicine is quite popular in Japan and that many women he knows go to EM drugstores and healers (such as chiropractors). After our meeting, he showed me an Eastern medicine drugstore that was just a block away from the office, selling herbal ointments and the like. Across the street from the drugstore is the Sukunahikona Shrine, enshrining both a Japanese god of medicine and a Chinese god of medicine – the shrine also sells some of its own alternative treatments. I didn’t realize that alternative medicine was so popular in Japan, and it’s hard to find statistics about this. But I did learn that kampo is the name for Japan’s version of Chinese Traditional Medicine, and that a well-known university here in Tokyo – Keio University – has a center for kampo in its medical school.

“Unhealthy” capillaries on the left and “healthy” ones on the right. (Source: Kekkan Bijin website).

For now, Takeno says, his device falls under the umbrella of alternative medicine. “Western medicine is science,” he said. “This machine is not science – yet.” But he expects that it will move into the realm of Western medicine, mentioning that the first researcher of capillary health was German – “and their history of building microscopes is good,” he adds (I couldn’t find any history of this type of capillary observation online, so I’m not sure). This reference to German medicine reminded me of my first meeting in India with the company that offers a homeopathy service. They also mentioned that the Germans invented homeopathy, which is true – a German scientist invented homeopathy in the 18th century, but the practice has long been written off as pseudoscience by Germany as well as many other nations. Still, based on some apparent global trust in German science, the homeopathy company used the German origins of their product as a way to legitimize it.

The traditional medicine shop around the corner. The sign in the window advertises treatments for high blood pressure, diabetes, PMS, back pain, insomnia, and more. It also mentions the opportunity for an online consultation.

Next, we discussed Takeno’s ideal users for the device and the reactions he’s gotten so far. He said that he has received more enthusiastic responses to his product from women than from men. Based on his experience in Japan, men don’t want to hear bad news or learn about bad health, but many women do want to know. This is partially due to the media, he explained – many female-oriented magazines and TV shows in Japan advise women to get regular health checks. Some even specifically recommend getting arteries or capillaries observed (Takeno showed me a huge stack of these magazines in the office). These broadcasters and magazines, he explained, say that having a healthy blood flow is important for beauty and young-looking skin.

So Kekkan Bijin currently markets its device to women, but Takeno hopes that once many women start checking their capillaries, men will want to do it too. “I think people are comfortable” with the device, he says, and he’s gotten all positive responses so far. “People want less technology – this is easy to use and not expensive,” he said, almost as though he was distancing his device from the idea of technology (or at least from the idea of a complex medical machine, which would perhaps not fit so well with the Eastern medicine I mentioned earlier).

Capillary length vs. age for men and women. (Source: Kekkan Bijin website).

Takeno told me that, due to the connection between healthy capillaries and younger skin, the device results can be used to predict someone’s age. The graph above shows the correlation between average capillary length in nanometers and age in years (the red line is for women and the blue line is for men). Takeno went on to explain the cultural consideration here, starting with the fact that age is very important in Japan. Since it culturally important to respect anyone older than you are, you should know the ages of the people with whom you interact. Takeno compared this to America, where age is less important – we care less about an age-based hierarchy, rather celebrating people based on merit, individualism, and innovation, especially if they’ve managed to accomplish a lot at a young age. However, in both countries, it’s rude to ask someone’s age. So in Japan, where knowing someone’s age relative to your own is important for navigating an interaction with them, what do you do? I had never thought about this being a potential issue in Japan!

Of course, it’s a very unlikely use case that you would have the opportunity to measure someone’s capillaries and use that result to determine their age – but it’s an interesting side benefit of the device.

Here, Takeno is focusing the scope over my pinky finger.

Finally, of course, I had to test out this machine. Takeno adjusted the scope over the tip of my ring finger, but it wouldn’t focus (apparently because I had used hand lotion that morning). As he was focusing the device over my pinky finger instead, I began to get nervous. Well, as it turns out, my capillaries are definitely not perfectly straight, though they aren’t terrible either. I’ll have to ask my doctor about it when I get back to the U.S.!

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The strained smile here is a product of my uneasiness at seeing my own capillaries on display.

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