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Massage industry booms in nation of overwork
  • By Marian Chu
  • Published 2018.04.16 11:02
  • Updated 2018.04.16 11:02
  • comments 0

More and more Koreans are getting massages either at home or shops, in a country deemed to have one of the longest work hours in the world.

The numbers of massage parlors and stores that sell massage equipment have increased steadily in the past few years, sprawling across metropolitan areas while the government is pushing to slash “inhumane” workhours here.

Shoppers at Costco Korea in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul, try out massage chairs on display in the warehouse store.

Korea is notorious for having 68-hour workweeks in a culture that emphasizes the importance of working hard -- often to extremes. The overwork culture has led some people to spend the whole day slaving away at their jobs, resulting in physical and mental exhaustion.

Against this backdrop, massage parlors – which used to provide illicit sexual services in the past -- have become steadily recognized as places that offer “real” massages with droves of younger Koreans actively seeking them out to get physical relief from various aches and pains of studying or working all day.

Related : ‘Rising unemployment worsens physical, mental health of young adults’

Against this backdrop of changing the cultural perception of massages, massage chair, and device stores have also benefited. The older generations, who mostly fear the stigma associated with massage shops, are especially turning to these devices and chairs to take care of shoulder and back pain at home.

Among chair makers, several firms, including Bodyfriend, LG, HuTech, Cozyma have come to the limelight. “My dad, who rarely spends any money on massage chairs or stuff like that, bought a Bodyfriend massage chair last year. I also fell in love with it ever since,” said a 30-year old surnamed Kim.

Data from local reports showed that the domestic massage chair market last year amounted to around 500 billion won ($567.7 million), indicating a 25-fold rise from 20 billion in 2007. Bodyfriend sales accounted for more than half of the company earning around 366.4 billion won in sales last year, rocketing from the 2.7 billion won revenue posted in the first year of its launch.

Massage chairs often carry price tags of 3 to 9 million won, a financial burden for most. Noting the barrier, companies such as LG have started a monthly rental service where users can pay around 80,000 won to use the chairs on a monthly basis.

Overall, the number of people getting massages at shops or home, or even in chairs on display at department stores, have risen in tandem with the number of people suffering from chronic fatigue, neck and back disk hernias, and especially from “50-kyeon,” which roughly translates into 50-something’s shoulder.

The condition, which refers to “frozen shoulder,” primarily affects people over 40 feeling their shoulders or arms to be “frozen” due to chronic pain that limits movement. Formally known as adhesive capsulitis, it is painful and disabling and has no apparent cause.

One theory for the cause of frozen shoulder is noted in the Frozen Shoulder Guide. The guide speculates that the human shoulder, evolved for “high-speed projectile throwing,” is rarely used in relatively sedentary modern life. It raises the possibility of the frozen shoulder being an under-use injury, frequently brought on by a period of shoulder immobilization

Treatment methods have varied largely among clinicians with some recommending doing nothing at all and others recommending surgery. As for massage therapy, the guide reads that “Although massages cannot break the adhesions in the shoulder joint capsule — not safely at any rate — [massages could] relieve some of the discomforts that usually develops in the area.”

The guide notes no clinical studies on the efficacy of massages exist, and evidence even points out intense massage sessions could worsen the condition. The point of massages then, the guide reads, should be to alleviate symptoms and encourage slow passive movements that let the nervous system know it is okay to move the shoulder again.

Although the chairs may not be clinically effective for frozen shoulder, massage chair companies in Korea have noted steady sales growth. In the case of the Los Angeles-based Bodyfriend, the firm aims to hit a $1 billion sales target by 2021 and is continually rolling out new models such as its Lamborghini massage chair to be released this year.

As long as Koreans remain one of the hardest-working people in the world, the massage industry – massage parlors and chairs for medical purpose – will likely continue to grow.


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