Friday, November 05, 2010

Korean Age is Coming

Dear Korean,

I'd like to ask you about how do Koreans count their age. I know that, compared to our system, they are either 1 or 2 years older but I don't understand why. The other day I asked to a tourist and he told me that on New Year's day, everyone turns a year older and that's ok. But why 2? For instance I'm 36 and will turn 37 this month. So if I was korean would I already be 37 because of new year, and therefore 38 because of my birthday this month? It can't be otherwise on December I'd turn 39, my god! Can you explain that?


Dear Korean,

I am curious about the Korean age system. I only know that Korean age is a year ahead than the real age because they will turn a year older every new year, so does this mean that they became two years older every year? Recently, I read somewhere that if you are born in December than you'll be two year old already the next year, is it true? If Koreans a one year old when they're born, at what age did they celebrate their one year birthday celebration? Example: My birthday is on 12 Jan 1991? So how old am I in Korea now?

Fatin Z.

Dear readers,

"Korean age" creates a lot of confusion, but there really are only two simple rules involved:

1.  Everyone, at the moment of birth, is one year old.
2.  Everyone adds an age at New Year's Day. (Either on the solar one or lunar one, depending what people celebrate.)

To be sure, Korean people also use the regular age system that Americans and Europeans use also. Koreans usually distinguish Korean system and Western system by adding "man" ("full") in front of the age. (So for example, a Korean person would usually say that she is "46 sal" (years of age,) but "man 45 sal" (45 years old "in full".) In fact, the Western system is the official system used for all legal purposes. (For example, a minor in Korea is anyone under 19 years of age, in a "full year" basis.) Usually, Korean age is one more than the full-year age, because Koreans start life at one, not zero.

To answer Giorgio's question, Korean system and Western system are never mixed together. Then how is it possible for a Korean age to be 2 more than the full-year age?  This is how: suppose a child was born on December 1, 1980. On that day, this child is 1 year old in Korean age and 0 year old in full-year age. One month later on January 1, 1981, this child is 2 years old in Korean age (assuming the child's family counts by solar calendar,) but still 0 year old in full-year age. On December 1, 1981, the child is 2 years old in Korean age, and 1 year old in full-year age. On January 1, 1982, the child turns 3 years old in Korean age, while remaining 1 year old in full-year age. So for the rest of her life, her Korean age will be 2 more than her full-year age, except for the brief period her birthday and the New Year's Day. (You can see how this particularly affects people with birthdays later in the year.)

To answer Fatin's question, as of November 5, 2010, Fatin is 20 years old in Korean age, although 19 years old in full-year basis. Fatin will be 21 years old in Korean age on January 1, 2011 while still being 19 years old in full-year age. Eleven days later on January 12, 2011, Fatin will close the gap by turning 20 years old in full-year age.

In Korea, Korean age system is not really used among infants, i.e. babies who are younger than two or three years old. Korean parents would simply give the number of months ("7 months old",) like an American parent would. To answer the other Fatin's question, the first birthday celebration ("dol") happens on the first birthday of the baby.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I'm Vietnamese, and in Vietnam we also have this kind of age-counting method where we use the the Chinese calendar. I was born on Feb 28, 1989 and for all legal purposes I'm 21 years old but I'm 22 in Chinese calendar. But apparently we are only one year older in Chinese calendar and never two years.

    We only use our "Chinese age" (actually in Vietnamese we call it "tuổi mụ" but I can't think of a better term right now) for fortune telling purposes, or when you have a major life event, like marriage (seeing if the two of you are compatible or not, and which auspicious day is your wedding day), building your home (yep, many Vietnamese people love to buy the piece of land where they want to live, and then build their home, rather than buying a house that was built by someone else), or funerals...

    In normal situations, if you ask a Vietnamese "how old are you" they will answer you in western age. If you're talking to an elder person, you may want to clarify as sometimes they say their western age and sometimes they refer to their Chinese age. It's also not uncommon to hear people ask "when were you born" or "what sign of Chinese zodiac are you" (1989 is the year of snake so for the second question I'd say "snake") instead of "how old are you?".

    I'd recommend if you want to know the person "real age" (whatever that means), just ask "when were you born" and count for yourself, save all of the confusion.

    (Personally I don't give two hoots about a person's Chinese age. Your parents and/or other seniors in your family will take care of the whole ceremonial and superstitious things) :)

  2. I once asked someone about why this age difference exists. The answer I received was that Koreans believe that life begins at conception. But if that were the case, wouldn't you be 9 mos old at birth, not 1 year? What are they counting 3 months before conception for?

  3. On a totally irrelevant note, TSS I just checked out your blog and I loved it. You and TK make me so want to get out of the country and travel and get to know the world. But I don't know you two manage to do it all. I mean you guys obviously have a job, a family and from your posts I'm assuming a hectic schedule as well. How did you find the time to write? And most of the posts are not just some boring, meaningless ramblings but actually decent, informative and occasionally hilarious entries.

    Well, keep up the good work guys. I guess that means more enjoyable reads for me :)

  4. Heyhey! Somehow I knew that shameless promotion on more popular blogs would get me noticed!

    Anyway thanks! Please read older entries because I've been in a slight funk as of late.

  5. I'm vietnamese and I can also confirm we uses the same system as the korean...

    take example me, I was born on dec 31 at very late night... less than 1 hours later I'm 2 years old lol.

    So when i was in vietnam, I was always the youngest kid in the class (it's nearly impossible to be younger than me) in the same class.

    In the US I'm among the older kids because of their system (where I'm not old enough when the school year starts).

    It's quite hilarious.

  6. Yo,

    So, any other countries/ contexts that use the same aging system as South/North Korea and Vietnam? Japan? China? Turkey? Give a simple shout out ya'll! Thanks,

  7. Hello. What about the part where children born in the first 3 or 4 months of a solar year are considered the same age as children born in the last 8 months of the previous solar year? They refer to each other as "friends" (of the same age)? Perhaps I will email you this question later, since I know that you don't take questions in comments. Thanks anyway.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...