The History Behind Korean Age
How old are you? This question may seem quite simple to answer but it becomes a bit more complex when you are in Korea. You may be “How old are you,” and then followed up with “Is that your Korean age or international age?” Welcome to the Korean age system where if are born at the end of the year there is a possibility for you to turn 2 years old a day after your birth.
What is it about?
Photographer: Sq Lim
In Korea every baby turns a year old when they are born and turn an additional year older each year on the 1st of January.
That means that the 17,000 babies born in December of 2021 in Korea turned 2 years old on the 1st of January 2022. On the bright side it means double the presents for the children!
This way of counting age dates back hundreds of years. Scholars are unsure of the origin of this method there have multiple recurring theories.
The first theory accounts for the time spent in the womb and states that counts for one year of the baby's life. Another one states that before the late introduction to the number zero in East-Asia by Qin Jiushao (1202~1261), people started counting at one versus at zero. And finally, my favorite one, as Koreans used to follow the Chinese calendar, poor illiterate farmers that could not read used to add one year to everybody at the start of the calendar year. Later on with the growing importance of the Gregorian system this tradition was passed on to have every person age another year on the 1st of January.
What does it mean?
It means that both the traditional Korean age and the International age are valid in Korea, but for different circumstances!
The Korean method of age calculation is the most commonly used among locals, and age is really important in Korea. You must always refer to someone older than you by their honorific title not their name, for example, as a male I must refer to my older friends as 누나 (for women) and 형 (for men).
The international age is used for official documentation.
The other age system commonly used in Korea adds one year every new year, like the Korean age system, however, everybody starts at age zero. This system is primarily used by the Military Service Act and the Juvenile Protection Act to determine peoples rights and obligations in regards to the military.
So does it mean that I can drink if I am 18 in Korea?
No, but actually yes.
The legal age to drink in Korea is 19 years old according to the Korean age system. So if you are a foreigner and are 18 in your home country then congratulations you are now officially an adult here! You are free to enjoy alcohol, clubs and prison (in this order). We're joking of course, but make sure to stay safe!
What is my Korean Age?
Photographer: Martin Reish
Current Year - Birth year + 1 = Korean Age
For example I am born on the 7 October 1997:
2022 - 1997 + 1 = 26
So I am 26 years old in Korean age while I am still only 24 in international age.
Photographer: Anna Vander
Korea Joongang Daily