For expats, one of the first things they learn to adjust to in South Korea is to clarify their age in two ways: one as they would back home, and another in “Korean age.”
Korea is one of the few countries that counts a newborn as being age 1 from birth. The tradition originates from China and was widely used in Asia.
From birth, a Korean starts as a 1-year-old and grows older by a year each year as the calendar changes. A 20-year-old, therefore would be 21 years old in Korean age, even if they have had a birthday that year. It’s also the reason a newborn baby who came into the world just two short months ago could already be recognized as 2 years old.
A recent survey showed that the Korean public are split in calls for abolishment of the Korean age system, which has been blamed for causing confusion. All official and public documents, for instance, need to specify whether age should be calculated based on their birthdate or by the year.
Local pollster Realmeter surveyed 529 adults aged 19 and over asking whether Korean age should be maintained. Of the respondents, 46.8 percent said Korean age should be maintained, while slightly less than 44 percent said age calculation should be unified.
By age group, 50.7 percent of those in their 30s hoped to abolish the Korean age notion, while 52.8 percent in their 20s wished to keep the Korean age tradition. Most in other age groups said Korean age should be maintained.
By political inclination, both conservatives and progressives narrowly preferred using Korean age with 52.7 percent and 49 percent respectively.
Legally, Korea’s civil law has been counting age based on one’s birthdate since 1962. But Korean age is still widely used socially as the preceding measure in comparing each other’s ages. Age remains one of key factors defining hierarchy and relations both personally and professionally in Korea.
Some say the Korean age calculation dates to agrarian society where seasonal changes and the length of a year were prioritized. Some also say it is based on an idea that the nine months spent inside a mother’s womb is counted.
But as confusion persists in mixing and using two versions of one’s age, most other East Asian countries have decided to abolish the dated aging system. Japan, for instance, enacted relevant laws in 1902 to officially use the universal age count, as did China in the late 1970s. North Korea is also said to be using age based on the date of birth.
In South Korea, however, there are still cases in which the “Korean age” takes precedence. The juvenile protection act, for instance, recognizes the start of adulthood based on the year the person turns 19.