Injuries from unlicensed massage parlours on rise: Japan

There has been a rise in reports regarding unlicensed massage parlours injuring customers.

Receiving information on more than 1,000 such claims from the Consumer Affairs Agency in fiscal 2013, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has identified about 330 unlicensed shops that allegedly have adversely affected customers' health.

As it is difficult to grasp the actual conditions of the injuries, the ministry is considering working together with the agency and municipal governments to prepare a system in which local health centers can promptly conduct an investigation after a complaint has been reported.

"I received a total body massage and had my ribs broken."

"I began having difficulty walking."

The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, an independent administrative institution, has recently received such complaints.

The centre received 1,304 complaints in fiscal 2013-nearly double the fiscal 2007 figure.

Among them are 232 health-related claims, such as broken bones, dislocations, sprains and even a spinal cord injury. That was also double the 2007 figure.

To open a massage parlour, one must qualify by passing a national exam after studying anatomy or other subjects at a certain institution for at least three years.

However, the official definition of massage remains unclear. Unqualified shops cannot be punished as long as they do not "risk harming people's health."

Thus, there are many massage parlours with no national qualification that declare themselves to be "relaxation providers." Many of the complaints to the consumer centers nationwide are related to such unlicensed operations.

When considering a series of such physical injury claims from consumers, the health ministry analysed about 960 complaints the national consumer centre received from April 2007 to July 2013 and identified massage parlours that caused such problems.

The ministry found that about 330 unlicensed parlours in Tokyo and 38 other prefectures appear to have caused such injuries, along with about 110 qualified parlours.

The health ministry requested in February that prefectures and government ordinance-designated cities that run public health centers identify such parlours and take corrective action.

Details unknown

But the injury verification process has been difficult, as there are many cases in which local government officials cannot contact victims and so cannot hear details such as the type of injury, the degree of the injury or when exactly the injury occurred.

"When a shop denies allegations, we cannot confirm what happened," say officials.

"We cannot step up investigations as we have only obscure authority to instruct such parlours."

Therefore, the health ministry is considering setting up a system in which consumer affairs centers nationwide or other bodies can ask for a person's name, contact number and a detailed description of the injury when they receive complaints or reports so that local health centers can quickly look into the matter.