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Why Is Korean Age Different?

Jason Park
Published by: Jason Park
Last updated:

Have you always wondered why the Korean age is different?

It’s not like the international system where people are considered X months old. In Korea, it’s different, and this goes way back 10.000 years.

The Korean age might change in the future; there has been speculation to change it to the international age.

Let’s dive deeper into why.

In short: the Korean age is different because Koreans start their age at 1-year old instead of 0. The moment they’re in the belly of the mother, they’re considered 1-year-old.

What Are the Reasons for Age Being Different in Korea?

There are two reasons why Korean age is different than it is for other Western countries. The first is how babies are automatically one-year old at birth. The other is that Koreans don’t age until January 1st, which means the actual date of birth doesn’t affect or influence their age.

Plus, Korea is the only country that does it this way in the world, using three different age systems. However, Vietnam, China and Japan all incorporate some form of multiple ages. These countries used to be much like Korea is today, but they’ve modernized and dropped it as a national practice. [1]

It’s a Sign of Respect for Elders

This whole concept behind age in Korea harkens back to the ancient ways of their culture along with certain aspects intrinsic to the language. This is because Koreans find age to be a very important factor in ways that are much different than in Europe or the USA.

Even though age is important for things like buying alcohol, cigarettes, renting an apartment and etc., just like in the West, it has a deeper connotation. Mainly, this is peculiar to social interactions in Korea due to their concept of hierarchy and respect for elders and status.

Korean Age Affects Social Interactions

In Korea, there is the expectation for younger folks to talk to their grandparents or authority figures (anyone older than they are) with a completely different set of nouns and verbs to address them. It is a highly formal way of speaking and reflects this idea of honoring those who are older than you are.

When out in a bar or restaurant, it’s the younger members of the group who must first pour drinks for everyone, starting with the oldest one among them. However, paying for things is an expectation of older folks.

What’s more, those who are the same age share a special kinship and become part of an elite group. When people meet others who share their ages, it’s cause for excitement and celebration. It also means it’s appropriate to use more casual and informal speech.

What Is the Origin of the Korean Age Systems?

No one really knows where or when Koreans began employing a multiple-tier age system. Some postulate that the one year counted on the day of your birth includes time spent in the womb, which has ancient connections to beliefs about childbearing and fertility.

However, old numerical systems throughout Asia didn’t have the concept of zero, it simply didn’t exist. Therefore, people started the age of babies at one year old the moment they come into the world.

In terms of the additional year that comes on January 1st, some theories suggest it connects to the Chinese method for calculating time. Specifically, the 60-year calendar cycle where ancient Koreans used this calendar since they didn’t have a regular one of their own. [2]

How Do Koreans Calculate Age?

Once born, babies are one year old on the day of their birth. For those born on December 31st, they are immediately two years old the following day. Some Koreans consider their time in the womb to be part of their age. Therefore, they have a Korean age they recognize as different from an international age, which they also call the Western age.

This is very unlike places like the USA, where you are a day old the day after you come into the world. The gestation time spent in the womb doesn’t influence your age and birthdays are a yearly occurrence, where you become one year older.

Do Koreans Celebrate Their Birthdays?

Koreans definitely celebrate their birthdays. In fact, they have two parties. The first is on January 1st, when everyone in the country is celebrating their birthdays and on the day of their actual birth. It’s just that the celebration that occurs on their actual birth date doesn’t influence or change their age.

This means all Koreans age on the same day, New Year’s Day. Everyone rejoices in a nationwide birthday celebration. Indeed, Koreans are a very festive people and enjoy socializing amid a party atmosphere. So, January 1st is a big deal to them.

Western/International Age

Koreans do have several situations where they will use their Western or international age before their Korean one. The Korean age is for social interactions and other traditional/cultural norms. But they use the international age for more official forms of business and legal matters.

For instance, they must present their international age for purchasing movie posters, alcohol, cigarettes and other such things. But, they also use it for determining someone’s legal drinking age and military conscription.

When Did Koreans Begin Using the Western/International Age System?

It wasn’t until after the Korean War that the international age became common use in South Korea. The government instituted its use in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was practical for legal proceedings, hospital visits, public offices and other such matters.

Korean Age May Legally Change to International Age for Good

However, as recently as April 2022, South Korea’s President-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol, announced plans to remove the Korean age system completely. Because Korea has three ways to calculate age, the official claim is that it causes legal confusion. This is particularly true when people are receiving welfare, social or other governmental benefits.

It has had an economic cost resulting in many confusing and unnecessary disputes. While they haven’t instituted the new unified age system yet, they do hope to get it passed in the legislature by 2023. The goal is to make changes in gradual phases. Plus, the president thinks people shouldn’t have to wait a whole year to age after their actual birth date occurs. [3]

Social Implications of the Change

On the flipside of this, there is a huge social implication to this ambitious change that may have serious repercussions. For hundreds of years Koreans have practiced their ages in three systems: New Year’s, Korean and International. To make such huge alterations cuts into the very fabric of what it means to be Korean.

Many elders and traditionalists have noticed a marked difference over recent decades in terms of social traditions, norms and form. Because of this, some believe that making this transition will create more detrimental effects to the fabric that holds Koreans together as a whole people. Therefore, such a swift and dramatic change may influence a downward spiral.

How Do You Calculate Your Korean Age?

To calculate your Korean age, many calculators online can help you determine the exact number. But the mathematical equation isn’t difficult, even a five-year old could do it.

There are a few ways you can configure this. The easiest is to determine one year more than you are now. For instance, if you’re 21 years old, your Korean age is probably 22.

But, you can also add one (+1) to the current year and then subtract it from your year of birth and it will give you the answer. In the event you were born in 1972:

2022 + 1 = 2023 (-1972) = 51 years old in Korea/50 years old in the West

Final Thoughts

There you have it, that’s the main reason why the Korean age is different. Now, that doesn’t mean that their age is comparable with the international age system. In fact, their Korean age system doesn’t apply to international laws.

About The Author

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Jason Park

Jason has been living in Seoul for over 4 years, and during that time, he has experienced many of the city's hidden stores. He loves to write about his experiences and share them with others. Jason has been quoted and referenced by different major media companies like Mashed, Distractify, ThePrint and TastingTable. In his free time, he likes to watch Korean dramas and learn more about Korean culture.

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