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What is Korean Age? The Traditional Age System in Korea and How It’s Changed

Did you know that your buddy in Korea, who was born in the same year as you, would still be older than you?

Well, until 2023, that is.

The Korean age system has existed for centuries. It’s been a point of charm, contention and confusion for both Korean natives and folks from other countries.

So what makes the Korean age system unique, and how has it changed?

Contents

What is Korean Age

Traditionally, the Korean age system dictated that on the day one is born, they’re already one-year-old. It makes decent sense, considering the fact that roughly nine months were spent in the womb.

Furthermore, a year is added to one’s age for every successive January 1. That’s right, a Korean person doesn’t necessarily age up when it’s their birthdate. Every time New Year’s comes around, a person’s age automatically ticks up.

This means that a Korean person following this system would be considered older by one or two years, compared to their internationally-calculated age.

History of Korean Age

This unique age system is presumed to have been adopted from China. It worked in conjunction with the lunisolar calendar, a date system that was once widely used in East Asia.

When Korea adopted the Gregorian (solar) calendar around the year 1896, January 1 officially became the start of a new year and the Korean age system accommodated.

In truth, the Western-style international age system (known as 만 나이 ) has been adopted by Korea since the 1960s and typically used for official contexts.

However, within the borders of the country, the Korean age system was still used for daily situations. Korean immigrants who moved to other countries also frequently incorporated their Korean ages within their official documents.

In December 2022, a law was passed in South Korea to abolish the traditional age system and replace it with the international one. The law was then enacted and practiced since mid-2023. Since then, many Korean natives have officially become a year or two younger, much to their delight.

How to Calculate Your Age in Korea

It’s quite easy to calculate your traditional age in Korea. Here are three equations you can use to figure it out:

  • If your birthday has already passed for the current year: Your age + 1
    • Ex. You were born in February 1990 and it’s currently March 2000, making you 10 years old.
      Your Korean age: 10 + 1 = 11 years old
  • If your birthday hasn’t passed: Your age + 2

    • Ex. You were born in May 2001 and it’s currently January 2012, making you 10 years old.
      Your Korean age: 10 + 2 = 12 years old
  • (Current year – birth year) + 1

    • Ex. Current year is 2024. Your birth year is 1980.
      Your Korean age = (2024 – 1980) + 1 = 45 years old

Why is Age So Important in Korea

A lot of social stock is put on the concept of age in Korea.

Age dictates how Korean people treat each other. It determines how formal your speech is and your overall etiquette.

In general, anyone who is older than you should be treated with more respect. You should be using more honorific language and act more humbly towards the person.

Anyone who is your age or younger can be treated more casually. You don’t have to use formal speech or practice more decorum. The barriers are lowered even further if you’re close to said person.

This is why it’s common for Korean people to be interested in your age early on in any sustained relationship. They’d like to gauge how you two should interact with each other.

Age-Related Vocab and Phrases

Here are some essential terms you should know whenever you discuss your age in Korean.

To see how these phrases and more are used in context, you could check out a language learning platform such as FluentU.

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You can imagine the relief that many Korean natives felt when their age system finally became obsolete. As soon as the abolishment law was passed, some may have felt that they instantly lost a few wrinkles and crow’s feet!

Still, age will always be important to Koreans regardless, and the old system remains an interesting and culturally-relevant topic worth studying!

And One More Thing...

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