You might be asking, why are Koreans a year older than the Western age?
Well, the thing is…
The way it works is quite simple. And you might even be two years older in Korea.
- Western Way: You are born 0 years old and every birthday you grow a year older.
- Korean Way: You are born 1 year old and every new year’s day (Jan 1) you grow a year older.
But why is that?
One way to think about it is that the baby is already aging as they are in the mother’s womb, which is very very roughly a year.
The reasoning, I believe, is rooted in Confucianism. Especially for countries like Korea, one will expect to be treated with respect from minors and is expected to treat elders with respect. Things as basic as spoken language, body language and gestures change depending on one’s age.
Thus, it makes sense that everyone ages on the same day (Jan 1) to avoid someone being older the first half of the year and then the same age the latter half of the year. So in terms of identifying age, Koreans wouldn’t really care for asking month and day; all you need to know is the year one was born.
So occasionally you get to meet people whose international age and Korean age has two years of difference.
I don’t know about you, but I think Koreans really have an interesting way of calculating age!
Imagine celebrating your birthday along with everyone else that was born in the same year as you! Everyone born on the same calendar year effectively has the same Korean age and can easily be calculated by the formula: Age = (Current Year − Birth Year) + 1
This concept, of “hangungnai” (한국나이), or ‘Korean age’, is different from your man-nai (만 나이), or ‘actual age’.
Unfortunately, under-age kids have sometimes tried to take advantage of this for various reasons, but eligibility for drinking alcohol, obtaining licenses, etc. is determined by the actual age.
Are you curious where this tradition originated?
Well, East Asian age reckoning, as it is called, has its origins in Chinese culture.
In Chinese tradition, aging would begin at the beginning of “lichun”, which is the first of the twenty-three solar terms. Eastern Mongolian age was traditionally determined based on the number of full moons since conception for girls, and the number of new moons since birth for boys.
However, the idea of a universal birthday has disappeared from all of East Asia, with China and Japan having switched to the western age reckoning system.
But today the traditional system is still used by the elderly and in rural areas.
So if you’re traveling to Korea and encounter anyone with the same birth year as you but you then find out that you have a different age than them, don’t worry about it because that’s just normal lol.