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  • Wonjin Eum

Almost everyone is about to become a year younger in South Korea

“New year, new me” most Korean people recite on New Year's Eve. However, almost everyone will be a year younger in South Korea this year. The biggest difference between the Korean age and the common international age is that Koreans become one year old right as they are born, whereas other people would think the baby is zero years old. The logic behind it is that Koreans count the ten months their mother carries them in their stomach as a year of existence. Consequently, people become a year older when following the Korean age system than the common international age system.

How to calculate your Korean age

Culturally, when it becomes the new year on January 1st, all Koreans become a year older. In other words, no matter when one has their birthday, all the people who were born in the same year are the same age. For example, a baby born on January 1st and another born on December 31st in the same year would be considered the same age. Koreans typically question, “What year were you born?” rather than asking, “How old are you?” This interaction is very natural and common to Korean people, whether they know the reason or not.

Unlike most other countries, Koreans put special importance to the concept of aging. Historically and culturally, Korea is a Confucianist country that highly values the concept of respecting one another, especially the elders of a community. The influence of Confucianism explains why Koreans use a different tone and form of speech when speaking to an older person. This social promise counts towards all the people older than one, even if they might only have a year or two difference. For instance, a sixth grader in middle school would have to use extra polite words, or the “honorific form” when speaking to a seventh grader, even if they might be close friends.

Ninth grader June Park states, “[As a Korean, I can say that] the concept of age is a big deal in Korean culture. You cannot call people older than you by their name and you have to use honorific language when talking to them.”

Providing another Korean perspective, sophomore Matthew Whang adds, “This is why usually being young is thought to be a bad thing since you don’t get all the privileges that the elders get in Korean culture.”

When Koreans break the social and cultural promises of revering the elders, they get depicted as being rude and disrespectful.

Due to the culture of “Korean age,” most Koreans consider themselves a year older than they actually are, for example, a 39 year old might refer to themselves as 40 years of age, but now the Korean government is creating a change. Due to the social and political confusion the culture brings, they have decided to take away the Korean age system starting in June oOf 2023. Since the Korean age system has been used for so long, controversial opinions on the change of the age system in Korea are inevitable.

The policies taking the Korean age system away creates benefits and concerns depending on the angle one approaches it. After the policy change, the government hopes to lessen the confusions that Koreans had gone through during international interactions. The law states that a citizen over nineteen years old can officially drink and drive; however, this follows the international age system which has been a common confusion to all. Nevertheless, when Korea gets rid of the Korean age, some say that it is the equivalent to destroying a very important part of the culture. Because the Korean age system has been around for so long, there are strong opinions that, rather, the change of the policy would bring more confusion. The year of the rabbit of 2023 is meaningful, especially to Koreans who are bound to rethink about what age they are turning.


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