How South Korea Massages Its Workforce

Approximately 51 million people live in South Korea. And like people in any other country, some of them lift heavy objects, sit in uncomfortable chairs, have generally poor posture, or otherwise have back and shoulder pain. And there are others for whom stress manifests in those body parts.

The good news: you can get a massage.

The bad news: it may be hard to get one from someone licensed to do so. There are fewer than 10,000 legally registered masseurs in the entire country.

Oh, and all the masseurs are blind.

And people have died to keep it that way.

In 1913, Korea was under Japanese control and the government at the time mandated that only legally blind people can offer their services as massage workers. It was a job program, basically; as the Chicago Tribune explains, this was “a way for the state to give the visually impaired a chance to earn a living in a culture prone to ostracizing disabled people.” The law remained in effect until after World War II; when the United States occupied southern Korea, it abolished the rule, but the South Korean government put it back into effect in 1963. At first, it wasn’t very controversial, but fast forward a couple of decades, and there was a big problem: too many bad backs and sore shoulders, and not enough blind people to care for them.

Quickly, a black market for sighted masseurs emerged to meet demand. There are at least 100,000 unlicensed practitioners in the country and as many as half a million. Even the government has gotten in on the illegal back rub biz. Per the New York Times:

During the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and the World Cup soccer tournament in 2002, South Korea assigned hundreds of sighted masseurs to cater to the visiting delegations. During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, the government offered free massage training to the unemployed. Roh Moo Hyun, the former president, is said to have kept his own — sighted — masseur.

It seemed like this law was likely to change. And in 2006, it did. Facing pressure and lawsuits from organizations representing the illicit masseuses, the Korean Supreme Court ruled that “freedom to choose occupation trumps the right to a special place in society,” per Stripes

That, however, was not the end of the story. The ruling angered the blind community, leading to protests — and those protests were deadly. As the New York Times further explains, “blind masseurs leaped from tall buildings and onto subway tracks. Two died. The police fished blind activists from the Han River in Seoul after they jumped from a bridge to highlight their cause. The protests continued until the National Assembly passed legislation enshrining the blind massage monopoly in law.” And, with the law now changed back, counter-protests erupted, with at least one sighted protestor also jumping from a bridge. When the government again took up the question, blind protestors “again jumped from the bridge, this time in opposition to a government proposal to license skin-care specialists to give massages.”  The tragedies kept compounding.

The law, however, didn’t change back. And the courts haven’t intervened. As the Strait Times reports, after the 2006 law change, “the court also said that those who are not blind should continue to be banned from opening massage shops because allowing them to open such shops can result in poor conditions for the blind. The court has delivered similar verdicts in 2008 and 2013.”

So today, that law remains on the books. By and large, though, if you want to get a massage in South Korea, you don’t need to wait for a blind practitioner to become available. There are many sports therapists and even barbershops that will offer you those services on the down-low, and unless their also offering massages of an R-rated variety, the government tends to look the other way.

Bonus fact: If you can’t find a masseur, maybe you should get a massage chair. But if you try them out in-store, make sure you don’t fall asleep. That’s what happened to a Twitter user in 2016, and it’s a good thing he used Twitter or he may still be there. (Okay, maybe not.) As Japan Today reported, “after plopping himself down in a massage chair and closing his eyes, @_Asphodelus__ opened them to find a much darker version of the view of the stoves he’d been looking at before drifting off. ‘Oh man, I’m locked in!’ he tweeted, along with snapshots of the gates that had come down at the store’s entrance.” Thankfully, the police caught wind of his tweets and helped him escape from the store.

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