By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Like most of the clients who visited Shin Higashiura's shiatsu therapy clinic, Stella (not her real name) is a middle-aged, upper-middle-class white woman. A vegetarian who favors holistic approaches to health, Stella sought out "Dr. Shin," as many of his patients called the lab-coat-wearing practitioner, for help with a pain in her foot, paying him $65 a treatment to stimulate pressure points on her body. To Stella, Shin's no-frills Toshin U.S.A. office on Fountainview near Westheimer felt clean and relaxing, "very Japanese." Stella communicated with Shin, a Japanese national who does not speak fluent English, through his right-hand woman, Minako Hashiguchi. Over the course of several treatments, Stella came to look on Minako as a confidante. A widow with a special place in her heart for animals, Stella told Minako of her greatest trouble: her cat's illness.
Minako, in turn, queried Stella about her personal life. Although Stella thought celibacy was considered healthy in Eastern practices, she says when Minako found out Stella did not have a romantic partner, Minako counseled her that sex was therapeutic for the entire body.
Stella also found out a couple of other things: She had poor circulation, Shin determined, and her hormone levels were out of balance. Minako repeatedly urged Stella to undergo a skin scrub, a vigorous brush-down Shin would perform at her house for $100. The treatment, Minako told her, might yield as much as a cup of dirt. Although Stella considers herself healthy she doesn't even carry medical insurance she began to wonder if she was worse off than she knew. "I was kind of getting this feeling like, was I dirty?" Apprehensive about receiving a house call, Stella stalled on agreeing to the scrub.
The day her cat died, Stella showed up at her Toshin appointment in tears. Minako chose that day, Stella says, to suggest an "inside treatment," explaining that Shin could balance her hormones by stimulating pressure points inside the vagina with his fingers. Thinking that menopause could indeed have thrown her hormones out of whack, Stella agreed and signed a release form permitting herself to be touched "in sensitive areas."
"At that time," Stella says, "I probably would have signed anything."
What follows is Stella's account of her experience with Shin and Minako, both of whom refused to grant an interview to the Press: Once in the treatment room, Stella lay back with Minako by her side. Although she assumed Shin would wear gloves for the treatment, the first thing she felt inside her was a sharp fingernail. She screamed in pain. Then she thought, "Oh, God, what if it's dirty? I could get infected." After ten seconds, Stella decided the treatment was over.
Stella, an incest and rape survivor who says she has attracted more than her share of inappropriate sexual advances, initially thought of her experience with Shin as an "isolated incident." But she was to find out that she was not the only one to get an "inside treatment." In fact, some of Shin's former clients claim their treatments went much further than Stella's, ending in sexual intercourse with Shin under the guise of therapy.
In February Channel 11 aired a three-part investigation of Shin. Conducted by the Defenders, KHOU's investigative team of producer David Raziq, reporter Anna Werner and photographer/editor Chris Henao, the exposé showed hidden-camera footage of Shin and Minako offering an "inside treatment" to an undercover reporter and included interviews with four unnamed women, including Stella, who said they had undergone "inside treatments."
Those who cooperated with the story hoped the public exposure would spur local authorities to take action against Shin. At the very least, they thought the report would decimate his business. But remarkably, since February, virtually nothing has happened to Shin. Neither the Harris County district attorney nor the Texas Department of Health has taken action against him. And though his business suffered immediately after the broadcast, one loyal client says his following has rebounded. In fact, Shin has even raised his prices.
Framing their story against the backdrop of the increasing popularity of alternative medicine, the Defenders offered a caveat emptor to those who think that the law protects consumers against fraud and abuse. Because alternative therapies, particularly those based on Eastern traditions, are unfamiliar to most Americans, people who try them are often uncertain about what to expect and what the normal parameters of such treatment should be. And when people are desperate to find something that works for their particular ailment, they become easy prey for hucksters.
Stella knew, or thought she knew, what she was getting into when she visited Shin's office. She'd previously had a pleasant experience with shiatsu. So she was surprised to find that Shin's treatments were intensely painful. "It was like childbirth every time," Stella says, adding that Minako would coach her to breathe, "almost like a doulah in a midwife class." Still, Stella figured, rightly, that alternative practices can vary greatly depending on the practictioner.
Directly translated, "shiatsu" means "finger pressure," and is sometimes used interchangeably with the term "acupressure." A Japanese healing art, shiatsu takes the same approach to healing as acupuncture, working on the idea that the body's life force flows along certain meridians and that manually activating points along those meridians can free blocked energy that causes pain or disease. Innovators have developed various branches of the practice, including zen shiatsu and macrobiotic or "barefoot" shiatsu.