“How old are you?” In a country with a deeply-rooted set of honorifics based on age, this question not only acts as a basic formality or curious inquiry, but as a method to create a foundation of a relationship. Age will determine various levels of respect and how one person will address the other. This is South Korea’s situation surrounding age. For me, as an American studying abroad in South Korea, answering this seemingly simple question became a challenge. That is because South Korea has its own unique way of calculating age that differs from most western countries. In South Korea, when you are born, you are already a year old. Then, on New Years Day the following year, everyone’s legal age increases by one year. Therefore, a child born on December 31, 2018 would turn two years old on January 1, 2019. You may be able to see my conundrum. In the midst of learning about and adapting to this new culture, I couldn’t even figure out my own age; however, South Korean people have developed a simple formula to ascertain what their Korean age is: 1 + Current year – Year of Birth = Korean Age.
Despite utilizing this special age system, the people of South Korea do, in fact, also recognize and use international age, which is the age system used by America for example. In daily society, South Koreans will use the Korean age system, and the international age system is mostly reserved for government-related regulations, such as the age to start school and the age of consent.
As I mentioned previously, age plays a very important role within South Korean society. The culture utilizes a system of honorifics based on age and the Confucian idea of respecting one’s elders. Therefore, there are certain niceties and behaviors one must adhere to if they are the younger party. For example, during group or business outings or dinners, the youngest of the party typically sets the table for the older members and will also pour drinks for the others. Additionally, it is seen as respectful to let the eldest person begin eating first during a meal. Once two people become closer, they can drop these formalities, but when initially forming relationships, these age-based honorifics seem to be the standard.
Recently, in January of 2019, politician Hwang Ju-hong suggested a bill to encourage the eradication of the Korean age system in favor of the international system. “It is aimed at resolving confusion and inefficiency caused by the mixed use of age-counting systems,” Mr. Hwang stated when he proposed this shift in legislation. Though nothing has come of his proposal yet, there is said to be many political and public discussions on the matter in the making, so we will see if South Korea will continue using both age systems or if they will adopt the international age system as the primary way of calculating age and how this decision will affect the age-based social hierarchical system in the coming years.
About the Author
Sydney Logan is a recent graduate from KU with her Bachelors in East Asian Languages and Cultures with a focus on Korean language and culture studies.