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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Grant

Korean Massage - Legal or Not?

There is believed to be more than 100,000 massage businesses in Korea. Most of them are illegal.

Not those places that provide a 'happy ending'. Those like the Foot Shop franchise with locations all around Seoul, the many Thai massage shops, and places that have the phrase "sport massage" in the name. They are all breaking the law. In Korea only someone with a recognized vision impairment can get the necessary license to work as a masseur or masseuse. A massage performed for compensation by a person who isn't legally blind is banned

The History of this law: In the 15th century those who couldn't see made a living as fortune tellers or chanters of Daoist texts. Seo Geo-jeong a prominent official noted:

In noble households, people always hire five, six, or seven of those who cannot see to recite scriptures, in order to pray for fortune the first month of every year and to prevent calamities during construction and repair of houses.

When Japan formally annexed Korea as a colony in 1910. The governor-general's office started a campaign to remove 'superstitious' practices including the use of public scriptural recitations for blessings. It was though that training those with visual impairment to perform acupuncture, moxibustion (burning small clumps of mugwort, a wild herb, on specific pressure points) and massage would make them give up their old profession. Although the colonial government considered these practices to be medical—meaning only licensed doctors should perform them—the visually impaired graduates of the training program were given special permission as healers to making a living from them. In April 1946, under American rule the Ministry of Health revoked the licenses granted to the blind healers. It stated that education for such people was inadequate to justify the exemption. Underlying the decision was the view that modern Western medicine was superior to traditional Korean medicine, which ought to be phased out.

Predictably, most of those who couldn't see, now without jobs, went back to the old occupation of telling fortunes and chanting scriptures. Alarmed by this, the Ministry of Social Affairs issued an official ban on superstitions two years later, pointedly including "the blind who chant scriptures" in the list of those who would be punished as "unlicensed doctors".

Still, some blind Koreans continued the fight to regain the old right, and the state medical code was revised in 1963 to grant only those with visual impairment the exclusive right to make a living from massage (though not acupuncture and moxibustion because those had been assigned to traditional doctors, in the 1950s). So the situation has remained for nearly sixty years. But the legally blind's monopoly on the massage profession has not been secure.

Massage providers without vision impairment have tried to overturn the law favouring the legally blind, taking the case to the Constitutional Court of Korea five times. The massage businesses run by those who aren't vision-impaired know what they are doing is illegal. They avoid using the Korean word for massage—anma—in their advertising (although the English word masaji appears often, both in advertising and names). It makes sense that the country's biggest massage chain is called The Foot Shop and not The Massage Shop (and their website emphasizes that they specialize in foot care).

Is it really necessary to ensure that only 250,00 legally blind people in Korea can get a masseur license, when fewer than 10,000 of them work in the industry? The case of the vision impaired community is that they want to be "granted a minimum of safe employment so that they can survive independently". Massage remains the only field where they are not hindered by the disability and don't fear legal competition.

The Korea Blind Union is calling on the government to establish a special task force to help precisely with job training for those who are legally blind, and to expand access to employment in a wide range of sectors.

Until then, it makes sense to keep massage the exclusive domain of people who cannot see. With some 1,300 officially recognized massage businesses in Korea run by the legally blind, it's not hard to find one of them. When in Korea get your next massage at one of them. Not only is it legal, you will also be doing something good for this community.

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