It’s 2012 and I’m walking through the Pre-Columbian Ruins of Iximche, Guatemala with my friend Dr Steven Tanaka. This is my first chiropractic mission trip to Central America and our local friends have dropped us off here for the afternoon to explore and wander these ruins of what was the Capital city of the Kaqchikel Mayans before the Spanish arrived. This became the first Spanish Capital of Guatemala after the conquest until it was moved to Antigua. We seem to be the only ones here in this grassy park-like setting of ancient pyramid-temples, plazas, palaces and Mayan ball courts. The sky is bright blue with wispy white clouds and it’s a perfect 75 degrees with a slight cooling breeze in the central highlands of Guatemala. We walk past the last of the pyramids and I follow Dr. Tanaka up over a berm about 8 feet high. Now we enter the dense forest where we can see more ruins extending back into the leafy emerald-green foliage. A movement catches my eye and as we walk into this new land, we smell the pungent clinging odor of burning copal resin. The Mayans call this sacred aromatic incense “Pom” and it’s cloying aroma clings to you like a lonely ghost. We continue down a faint forest trail and soon arrive at a clearing where two Mayan men are tending fires in front of a small ancient soot-blackened pyramid. Dr. Tanaka spends a few minutes conversing with one of the men in Spanish. We continue our walk around the small pyramid; noticing many candles burning here and there in little nooks in the sides of the structure. After a few minutes, he turns to me and says we should leave now because the men are burning incense to cleanse the area for a religious ceremony. They had told him that he is welcome to walk around the area but that we should leave before the Brujo arrives for the actual ceremony. The indigenous religion is alive and in full practice among the Mayan people of Guatemala. Iximche is one of their most sacred ceremonial sites.
Dr. Steven Tanaka is my friend. Don’t get me wrong, this does not make me a member of an exclusive club. Dr. Tanaka has thousands of friends on every continent of the world. These are not social media “friends”…they are real, honest to goodness, look you in the eye, heart to heart, soul to soul friends. How did this humble, unassuming Japanese chiropractor from Watsonville, California gain the trust, admiration, loyalty and love of so many people all over the world? I believe he gained these true friends by giving them his trust, admiration, hard work, loyalty and love. He smiles and gently laughs and mostly he listens. He reminds me in many ways of Doc Ricketts, John Steinbeck’s best friend and as Steinbeck described his friend: He has the hands of a healer, “and a cool warm mind. He can listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind has no horizon-and his sympathy has no warp.”
I first met Dr. Tanaka in 1986 when I started practicing in Carmel, California and joined the Monterey Bay Gonstead Clinical Studies Society. At that time it was made up of an extraordinary group of dedicated doctors who met once a month at each other’s offices to learn and teach each other the subtleties of their chosen technique and profession (Gonstead chiropractic). The core group included Dr. Richard Thornton, Dr. Peter Thibodeau, Dr. Charles Martin, Dr. Jeanne Taylor, Dr. Charles Nelson, Dr. Steven Tanaka, Dr. Adam Schwartz and me Dr. Randal Johnson. It became clear very quickly that although Dr. Tanaka was probably the least talkative member, he did most if not all of the work of writing newsletters and finding and publishing the relevant research articles for our review and benefit. He spent countless hours driving to and researching and copying articles in the U.C. Santa Cruz, the U.C. San Francisco libraries and the chiropractic colleges (Palmer-west and Life-west). He continued to do this work for over thirty years for no compensation except the appreciation of his friends.
At the same time, he ran his successful practice in Watsonville, CA. During the course of his years in Watsonville, his practice became more and more filled with Spanish speaking patients most of whom had immigrated from Mexico and Central America. His response to these changes was to attend all of the Spanish language classes offered at his community college and become fluent in that language. His language ability was only surpassed by his talent and dedication to the Gonstead technique and his love for his patients and his practice was filled with grateful and enthusiastic Spanish speaking patients. It was during this time that he learned about the plight of the suffering people of El Salvador which had exploded into a bloody civil war after the murder of Archbishop Romero. Just as that war came to its end in 1992, Dr. Tanaka joined an intrepid group of chiropractic doctors led by Dr. Juan Campos on a mission trip to help and serve the suffering people of El Salvador with Gonstead chiropractic. There he made many new friends and hundreds of grateful patients which he served under very primitive conditions. He remembers there were soldiers on every street corner and his group was stopped and interrogated several times as they drove to their mission destination.
Other doctors eventually joined Dr. Tanaka in these informal mission trips to Central America which he began to organize and lead. On one trip they ventured into the prisons to take care of the men who were held there after the war. These ex-FMLN soldiers lived in extremely dire circumstances in an old Spanish Fort, where the guards dared not enter but merely guarded the perimeter to stop prisoners from escaping. Dr. Tanaka and his colleagues entered the prison under the protection of the prisoners themselves. They told him he needed their protection because “there are some really crazy people in here!” The doctors set up their portable adjusting tables and began evaluating and adjusting the prisoners who gratefully experienced the amazing healing benefits of Gonstead chiropractic. Dr. Tanaka and the other doctors worked hard and suffered the harsh and dangerous environment of the prison as they helped alleviate the health problems of these men. For his dedication Dr. Tanaka was given gifts and a plaque made by the grateful prisoners themselves testifying to his work there.
Since the time of those first missions to Central America, Dr. Tanaka has made well over 50 trips to El Salvador and Guatemala and introduced close to 100 Doctors to the rewarding experiences of serving the people there with chiropractic health care. In 2012, I was one of those doctors. Since that time, I have visited many beautiful and interesting places with him in Guatemala including Chichicastanango where the Mayans fly on the Palo Volador, Tikal where they filmed “The Empire Strikes Back”, Chikabal Volcano where the sacred lake of the Maya is called the “Mirror of the Sky” and Lake Atitlan one of the most beautiful spots on earth.
We also served many hundreds of suffering people there and experienced and watched many people recover from debilitating injuries and diseases. I remember one man who had fallen from a roof two years previously and appeared for care in a wheelchair unable to walk or work. This is especially important in a country where there is no governmental aid or disability insurance. In Guatemala, you must depend on your family and friends to help feed and house you when you can’t work. After evaluating his condition, a specific adjustment was given and after a few minutes he began to walk with just a limp. Next day he had improved so much that he walked into the mission clinic on his own. After two more visits he was fully recovered and could return to his normal life and work. He was so happy that he brought me a very nice present of a belt which I still wear.
In 2015, Dr. Tanaka became very ill due to his bad habit of not drinking enough water and becoming very dehydrated. Due to the many long drives he took to Los Angeles, San Francisco and other areas to fetch research papers, damaged his kidneys to the point where he experienced kidney failure. This unexpected disease almost killed him. He gradually recovered but now requires dialysis three times per week. Because Dr. Tanaka could no longer lead trips to Central America, I recruited two other doctors (Dr. Jennifer Liu and Dr. Justine Rhee) to found Tanaka Chiropractic Missions. This Non-profit organization is dedicated to carrying on Dr. Tanaka’s legacy of serving the people of Central America and the sick and suffering people all over the world who don’t have access to real Chiropractic health care.
Covid has interrupted our plans for a full mission to Guatemala this year but we hope to send 2-3 doctors there if possible. We have plans to travel to other destinations as soon as Covid allows such as Easter Island and Kenya, Africa. If you would like to be a part of our mission, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to donate to support our cause, you can do that here. These funds go directly to supporting the expenses of the missions.
If you would like to contact Dr. Tanaka directly, he is in his practice during the week but since he does not use email or the internet, its best to write him a letter addressed to:
Dr. Steven Tanaka
101 Prospect Street
Watsonville, CA 95076
I know he will very much appreciate and respond to any letters or cards you send.