Even just a casual search on Korea's biggest online map service Naver Map shows easily a dozen massage parlors in a single neighborhood of Seoul. There is no accurate data, but some argue that there are more than 100,000 such massage businesses nationwide.
Most of them are illegal.
No, I am not talking about places that provide a 'happy ending'. I mean everything from the massive Foot Shop franchise with locations all around the capital, countless Thai massage shops, to 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 acquire the necessary license to work as a masseur or masseuse. A massage (anma 안마) performed for compensation by a person who isn't legally blind is banned under Article 82 of the Medical Act.
Understanding how it came about requires some context.
Record indicates that as early as in the 15th century those who couldn't see made a living as fortune tellers or chanters of Daoist texts. Seo Geo-jeong 徐居正, a prominent official in King Seongjong's court, noted:
In noble households, people always hire five, six, or seven of those 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.
A fascinating paper by Im An-su, professor emeritus at Daegu University, explains what happened when Japan formally annexed Korea as a colony in 1910. The incoming governor-general's office launched a sweeping campaign to eradicate 'superstitious' practices including the use of public scriptural recitations for blessing.
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, it was thought.
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.
When Japan lost the Second World War in 1945, the US military moved in and governed the southern half of the Korean Peninsula for three years. Under American rule, in April 1946, the Ministry of Health revoked the licenses granted to the blind healers. It contended that education for such people was inadequate to justify the dispensation. Underlying the decision was also 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 bereft of jobs, went back to the old occupation of telling fortunes and chanting scriptures. Alarmed by the turn, the Ministry of Social Affairs issued an official ban on superstitions two years later in 1948, 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 the domain of traditional doctors—haneuisa 한의사—in the 1950s).
So has the situation remained for nearly sixty years. But it doesn't mean that the legally blind's monopoly on the massage profession has been secure. In 1975 the National Assembly came close to changing back the law yet again, although it backed down after facing fierce opposition from the vision-impaired community.
As this Korean news article from 2013 suggests, the 1988 Seoul Olympics saw massage going mainstream. The so-called "sport massage"—touted as good for athletes—became popular. In the aughts various massage services calling themselves alternately Thai or Chinese opened doors. The beauty industry also sought to profit by offering massage, which it says can be used to correct the shape of the face or body.
Massage providers without vision impairment have also attempted to overturn the law favoring the legally blind, taking the case to the Constitutional Court of Korea already five times.
In May 2006 the court in fact ruled the exception favoring the legally blind unconstitutional on the ground that it violates the principle of equality. It prompted a wave of suicide by masseurs and masseuses with visual impairment, who felt their livelihoods had been taken away. Under pressure, the National Assembly promptly passed an amendment to the Medical Act in order to preserve the right of the legally blind to work as masseurs without facing competition.
Since then four additional legal challenges have been filed with the Constitutional Court, which ruled in all cases that the protection doesn't violate the constitution (most recently in 2017).
The massage businesses run by those who aren't vision-impaired know full well that what they are doing is illegal. They avoid using the Korean word for massage—anma—in their advertising (although the English loan-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, even though its branches offer a wide range of massage services).
Once in a while the government launches a crack down on the unlicensed massage shops in the name of "actively protecting the livelihoods of the legally blind". But as this response from the association of non-vision impaired masseurs shows, one can avoid being penalized by claiming to be "figure management (체형관리 chehyeong gwanri) specialists and not masseurs". Another favorite phrase of theirs is "body care".
In a move that alarmed the legitimate massage businesses, a lower-court judge in Seoul ruled last year that a massage shop operator hadn't broken the law by hiring employees without visual impairment to give massages. The judge reasoned that the ban itself was unconstitutional. That ruling was reversed on appeal this November, but the defendant has vowed to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The legalities aside, some may ask: is it really necessary to ensure that only 252,000 legally blind people in Korea can acquire the masseur license, when fewer than 10,000 of them work in the industry (9,742 in 2017)?
The argument 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, an advocacy group, believes in going further. The visually impaired will not hang their survival on massage alone if they have a chance to enter a variety of professions, and that's yet to be the case.
The priority for the 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. And we can all help.
With some 1,300 officially recognized massage businesses in Korea run by the legally blind, it's not hard to find one of them. (Here is a listing—unfortunately only in Korean—courtesy of the Daehan Massage Therapists' Association, the body representing licensed masseurs and masseuses.)
Go get your next massage at one of them. Not only is it legal, you will also be doing something good for this community.