More and more Japanese, South Korean and other foreign manufacturers of TCM are not even using Chinese raw materials for the ancient cures. What is left then?
BEIJING — A minor craze is underway among Chinese tourists for Dusmock, a herbal medicine developed by the Japanese company Kobayashi Pharmaceutical. Reports have recently been published in various Chinese media outlets about the many visitors from China buying up the cure on trips to Japan.
Dusmock was launched in September 2014 and was originally targeted at smokers with bronchial asthma and respiratory functions weakened by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. The dried decoction in granular form, literally named "lung–cleaning soup" in Chinese, has seen sales soar by 40% compared with the year before, mainly thanks to the Chinese tourists visiting Japan who believe it can also help them clean up the muck in their lungs caused by China's notorious smog.
That this latest offering of kampo, literally meaning "Han (Chinese) medicine," has been developed in Japan is by no means a new phenomenon. The Japanese and South Koreans together account for 80% of the production of traditional Chinese medicines (TCM), whereas China accounts for only 5%.
Some 75% of the raw herbs used for Japan's TCM products used to come from China. In order to guarantee the quality of the herbs, Japan's largest TCM manufacturer, Tsumura & Co., set up 70 herbal planting sites in China, whereas China's largest TCM producer, Tongrentang, owns only eight. But what is changing now is that China might even be losing its role as dominant raw material supplier for the medicinal herbs.
In response to the growing price of China's medicinal herbs since 2006, Tsumura started a large-scale trial of planting licorice, a major component in TCM, so as to avoid relying on China's supply for natural licorice. By 2011, the Japanese company had successfully achieved artificially cultivating licorice while the staple's market price more than doubled. Meanwhile, other Japanese pharmaceutical firms are also carrying out herbal cultivation operations in Southeast and Central Asia. For example, Shinnihonseiyaku established a project in Myanmar's eastern Kayin State, growing more than 30 species of Chinese medicinal plants.
Toshiharu Nagane, Shinnihonseiyaku's development section manager, is bullish. "By 2018 we'll probably be able to harvest 2000 tons of herbs annually, which is equal to 10% of Japan's raw drug import."
Cokay, a Japanese pharmaceutical raw materials manufacturer, set up a factory in Azerbaijan, in 2013, producing an extract of glycyrrhetic acid from licorice, and another factory in the Caucasus.
Meanwhile on the R&D front, Japan and South Korea own more than 70% of TCM patents internationally, whereas China owns an embarrassing 0.3%. Indeed, as early as 1972, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare started standardizing and modernizing the kampo production methods. Thanks to the constantly improving regulations and monitoring of the standardized ingredients of medicines, today Japan has developed hundreds of kinds of kampo drugs in a granular form that is easier to ingest.
It is worth noting that almost all these Japanese kampo medicines draw their therapies entirely from the Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders, a Chinese clinical textbook compiled by Zhang Zhongjing around the early 2nd century, or the Pediatric Encyclopedia of the Song dynasty.
Manfred Porkert, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of Munich, explained that China has never gotten serious about capitalizing on its own tradition. "TCM has never gotten proper cultural status, nor have the necessary epistemological research and rational scientific inquiries been carried out to establish its traditional scientific status," he said.
Ryuta Fujii, president of Ryukakusan Co., the pharmaceutical firm that produces another particularly popular cough medicine among the Chinese, told the China News website that Japan is reaping the benefits of years of investment and study. "Though kampo maintains a Chinese image, Japanese-produced herbal medicines have achieved considerable technical progress."
Rather than relying on a Chinese doctor's diagnosis and personal prescription, Japan's kampo depends on vigorous manufacturing standards, which are commercialized in soluble pills or granules convenient for sales domestically or abroad. Meanwhile, beyond squeezing out Chinese competition, Japanese kampo manufacturers are also striving to meet ever stronger Chinese customer demand, as evidenced by all the advertisements addressed to Chinese tourists in the numerous drug stores of Tokyo's Ginza and Akihabara districts.
Alas, apart from the name "Chinese," one wonders what will be the legacy of products and practices that originated in ancient China if the whole industry is driven from abroad.
*This article was originally written in Chinese by Guo Chenqi, a contributor for the Economic Observer. It was translated by iQ language expert Lisa Lane.
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