Thursday, October 06, 2011

Four Distinct Seasons. Only in Korea.

Dear Korean,

Did you know Korea has four seasons? This line seems to be part of the average Korean's repertoire of small-talk to use when-talking-with-foreigners. It might be becoming less common, but you certainly used to hear this a lot from Koreans - so much so, that I think it must be in the school textbooks somewhere. FWIW, I believe 'My country has four seasons' is something the Japanese like to say as well.

My question is 'Why?'. Why do Koreans feel the need to point this out? Is it because it's inculcated in school? If so, why is it taught in school? Is it Japanese influence (and why do the Japanese like to say this?)? Is it perhaps to distinguish themselves from other Asian countries with tropical climates? But then why use it on westerners all of whom come from countries with four seasons, and none of whom see anything remarkable or remark-worthy in the fact?

Bemused and baffled.

Although Korea is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, there is still a great deal of clumsiness on the part of Koreans as a whole when they interact with non-Koreans. The "four seasons" talk is a classic example. Because a large number of Koreans simply have never interacted with a foreigner, they lack the necessary self-awareness of how they would sound from the perspective of the foreign listener.

(By the way, although the situation has vastly improved in recent years, this lack of self-awareness is present in Korean society at every level. One of the results stemming from such lack of self-awareness is the cringe-worthy "visit Korea" ads like this one.)

It also does not help that Koreans, in most cases, do not have the necessary English ability to convey subtle nuances. No Korean believes that Korea is the only country in the world that has four seasons. But when they speak in English, their tones often end up sounding like they do.

Four seasons on the road near Cheongju.
So when it comes to figuring out why Koreans need to point this out, clumsiness has a great deal to do with the answer. Koreans will grow out of it sooner or later, but as of now it may be somewhat annoying. However, that is only a part of the story, because a greater mystery remains: why seasons, of all things?

More after the jump.

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

Another big part of the "seasons talk" is that yes, Korean schools do teach their children that four distinct seasons is one of the defining characteristics of Korea. Unfortunately, some combination of lack of self-awareness, lack of knowledge about other countries and lack of ability to express nuanced thoughts distorts that proposition into the crazy idea that Korea is the only country in the world that has four distinct seasons.

But this idea does have a tiny kernel of truth to it. Although this is less true in the recent years as climate change has been affecting Korea's climate, Koreans are not kidding when they say Korea has four distinct seasons -- it is not just that Korea has four seasons, but they really are distinct. Isabella Bishop, a British woman of late 19th/early 20th century who was one of the earliest Western visitors of Korea, gave high praises for Korea's climate, especially the winter:
The climate is undoubtedly one of the finest and healthiest in the world. ... Korean winter is absolutely superb, with its still atmosphere, its bright, blue, unclouded sky, its extreme dryness without asperity, and its crisp, frosty night.
The winter then leads to a very pleasant, flowery spring. The summer is significantly hot, with a long monsoon spell in the middle. Autumn is undoubtedly the best time in Korea, with cool temperature and crisp air. The brilliant fall colors of Korea compare favorably to the best autumn leaves of New England, with bright yellow leaves of ginko trees -- native to Korea -- providing accents. Much of the world may have four seasons, but not necessarily this distinct.

Just this much may not make Korea all that unique. However, it is with good reason that Korean schools teach that having four distinct seasons is one of the defining characteristics of Korea. It is not so much that Korea experiences these four seasons -- lots of places around the world experience spring, summer, fall and winter. It is the degree to which Korean culture revolves around the seasons that makes the seasons a defining characteristic for Korea.

A good example of this would be the degree to which Korean food revolves around the seasons. Traditional Korean cuisine is mostly made up of vegetables, whose productions are significantly seasonal. The standard napa cabbage kimchi, for example, has traditionally been a late fall/winter dish, because napa cabbages grow in cool temperature. Similarly, the fish available Korea's seas -- another significant part of traditional Korean cuisine, given that Korea is a peninsula with water on three sides -- change significantly based on the seasons. To this day, Koreans are keenly aware of the best food for each season -- fresh namul [나물; herbs] for spring, barley rice for summer, hickory shad [전어] for fall and red bean porridge [팥죽] for winter, just to give a few examples -- and Koreans are generally diligent about keeping up with the seasonal diet.

Korea's traditional holidays also revolve around the seasons. The four major traditional holidays of Korea -- lunar new year [설날], daeboreum [대보름], dano [단오] and chuseok [추석] -- correspond to winter, spring, summer and fall, each entailing elaborate celebrations involving, among other things, seasonal foods.

So, a lot of Koreans' "four seasons" talk is a clumsy lack of self-awareness. But it is nonetheless true that Korea's distinct four seasons define a great deal of Korean culture.

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


  1. Apparently, Japanese people say the same thing.

    (From another blog I also enjoy a lot)

  2. Great question. I've wondered about this a lot myself. I've heard it in both Korea and Japan, though I must say it seems to happen more often in Korea.

  3. In Japan I'm told the reason Japanese people talk of the four seasons is in response to classic Chinese poetry where it was made a big deal out of. I'm guessing Korea got the same influence from the Chinese poetry.

    Now however, it gets really funny when the Finish go in to the same rant about Finland being the only country in the world with four seasons!

  4. Hmm... I'm not sure on this, but are Korea's 4 seasons also equal in length?

    Arizonans jokingly say that Arizona has 10 months of summer, and 2 months of the rest of that crap put together in a mush... Which isn't that far off, really.

  5. Darin, personally I think we Finns do the four seasons a lot better than the Koreans but I think most Finns are too busy complaining what a crap place it is to praise the yearly cycle.

    Also, did you know in a 24 hour period, called a day, there are two distinct periods too, a dark one and a light one. Facinatingly obvious stuff.

  6. Coming from Boston, a place with a very distinct 4 seasons I've always been a little confused why the Koreans take property of this 4 seasons phenomenon. The only thing I could think of is that whenever they go on vacation, it's often to countries that don't ie. south east asia, hawaii etc.

  7. It is in fact a line that was in many of the English education texts*, and it inadvertently became a model of how to describe Korea in actual speech.

    That said, I've heard far more foreigners say that Koreans say this than I've heard Koreans actually saying it.

    * For a grad school class focusing on Korean national identity, I did an analysis of changing English textbook contents going back to the Japanese occupation era.

  8. I teach at a university in Korea and I hear this at least once a month. The thing is I have met Koreans who speak English well enough that it is not a miscommunication. They acknowledge that other countries have four seasons, but counter that those seasons in other countries are not as distinct as Korea's, and further that the distinctness of Korea's four seasons is unique in the world. I've also heard mention that the food changing with the seasons is a unique feature of Korea that enhances the unique distinctness of the seasons.

    Of course, European countries, such as France, are also know for their very distinct four seasons, as well as the seasonal variation of their cuisine. I believe Northern Italy is very similar in this regard as well. Let's not forget Japan for that matter.

    There is no question that four distinct seasons is a defining part of this country, but they are hardly unique in the world for having four distinct seasons or for the seasonal change in the cuisine. The only reason why this fact gets trumpeted constantly is because the people who say it generally just have no clue about the rest of the world.

    The lack of contact with other countries (specifically Western ones) is the primary reason why Koreans assume certain things must be unique to Korean when they really are not. For example, my father-in-law was shocked, SHOCKED, that Americans not only eat rice, but that we actually produce a lot of it. He assumed that rice was something Americans eat only on the rarest of rare occasions (and that some had never eaten rice at all).

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  10. I have never lived in Korea, but my impression is that there is a bit of lag there compared with Japan when it comes to awareness of how to speak to a non-native. Most Japanese people I meet speak with me normally (of course initial conversation still revolves around how/why/when I learned Japanese, where I am from, how tall I am, etc). Every now and then though I meet somebody who is in 'speaking with foreign person' mode. Even though we are in Japan and both speaking Japanese normally, they run some kind of filter through which anything I say comes, with possible interpretations set to 'assume ignorance of everything/anything to do with Japan'. Ask where they are from, for example, and they might say 'Japab'. Ask again and they might try to explain where Osaka is as though I don't know. I can't complain too much about being treated as a foreigner when I -am- a foreigner. It's not at all like Americans say of Asian heritage being treated as foreigners in their own country. It does get frustrating and alienating having to start every human relationship from the same starting point of establishing that I don't need any special treatment and we can speak as normal Japanese people speak to eachother.

  11. I have actually never heard anyone talking about the four seasons ever. I think if you actually speak k
    Korean to a decent degree, people never enter talking to foreigner mode. Japan on the other hand... Man, you could be absolutely fluent and still hear all the same stuff.

    My mother came to Korea in the 1970s and at that time it was popular thing to say that Korea is famous for its blue skies. One lady asked my mom what color the skies are in America.

  12. I'm going to add that, from having heard foreigners who have this in their craw talk about it, that a bit of the apparent meaning is inferred by the foreigner.

    For example, while I've heard a few Koreans mention the four seasons, I don't ever recall hearing that it was "unique" or "only" Korea. But I have heard the aforementioned foreigners with this in their craw wonder out loud why Koreans think it's so unique or do they really think Korea is the only country like this?!

    rockmere wrote:
    For example, my father-in-law was shocked, SHOCKED, that Americans not only eat rice, but that we actually produce a lot of it. He assumed that rice was something Americans eat only on the rarest of rare occasions (and that some had never eaten rice at all).

    Your father-in-law was shocked that Americans produce a lot of it? I'm a bit incredulous, given that in the 1990s, the US trying to force open Korea's (and Japan's) rice markets was a major source of contention for years and years.

  13. I forgot to add an analogy in reference to inference...

    I was born in Southern California, where we have an arid climate. On one side of the mountains we have a desert and on the other side we have what's called a Mediterranean climate.

    Now if I were to mention either of those things, I'm certainly stating something that is a very important part of life in California, intrinsic and inescapable, but I'm by no means suggesting California is unique or the only one with either of those (I hear they have a Mediterranean climate in Southern Europe).

  14. To anyone coming from Europe the four seasons stuff sounds ridiculous. To me it would be a lot more interesting to visit a country that doesn't have four seasons. Plus Korean summers are too hot and Korean winters are too cold compared to other places where you have four seasons.
    And every country has different dishes for different seasons. Especially in countries where agriculture was important. Holidays often have something to do with the year cycle. So what TK says may be true but it's the same as saying that it's true trees have green leaves in Korea and birds fly as well...It's just normal.

  15. Oh, come on, folks. Don't get your panties twisted in a bunch over this. It's only natural for Koreans to try and educate foreigners about their country: you gotta remember, Korea became prosperous relatively recently, and most Koreans have relatively little/no first-hand experience of other countries/cultures/people. It's somewhat akin to a guy trying to introduce his girlfriend to his Mom in the best possible light, and Mom zinging him with "No shit, Sherlock."
    On a similar note, the Japanese get shocked -SHOCKED - that we, Yanks, actually know, like and appreciate good sushi and sashimi. Go figure.

  16. I live in Georgia (the state, not the country) and it jumps from hot to less hot and then to winter and then to hot again.

    so when Korean people say, there are 4 seasons in Korea, i find that to be true bc you see flowers blooming in spring, the hot humid muggy season of summer, the leaves changing and the cool breeze in the fall, and then cold and more cold in the winter.

  17. I would like to share a joke that one of my Canadian colleagues told me once: "There are four seasons in Canada: almost winter, winter, still winter and construction". :)


    Haha, just kidding.

    But obviously, lots of places have 4 distinct seasons and it's kind of weird to get competitive about who has the DISTINCTEST seasons. Lol. A lot of those places do also have specific traditions that have to do with such seasons, and eating food from that season, etc.

  19. Actually, every place has four seasons, as determined by the equinoxes and the solstices. The question is what, if anything, Mother Nature chooses to do with them.

    In the aforementioned SoCal, I'd say we have two seasons. One is routinely overcast and chilly, and you have to wear a jacket if you go outside for a long period of time. The other is sunny with spikes into the 90s during which everyone heads to the beach but doesn't go into the water because it's too cold.

    These are summer and winter, respectively.

  20. Erika got me to thinking that part of the dynamic here is that "the uniquest" or "most distinct," if that's really happening much at all, may largely be because of a tendency among some KoKos to answer something — anything! — when pressed for an answer by a foreigner.

    It's great if the person answering knows what they're talking about, but not so great if they don't. How many KoKos know why the Ministry of Education decided to highlight the fact that Korea has four seasons in their English textbooks for KoKos to parrot? They can guess, and some may guess (wrongly) that there is something special about Korea's four seasons.

    KoKo: In Korea we are very happy to have four seasons.

    FoTeach: What's the big deal about that? I'm from [place in North America above 36°N except on the West Coast] and we have four seasons.

    KoKo: I guess maybe Korea's four seasons are more distinct than in other places. [Note: "KoKo" says "I guess maybe" only in his/her head]

    FoTeach: Well, that's just stupid. Why are Koreans inveterate liars? [Note: FoTeach does not say this in his/her head]


  21. "For example, my father-in-law was shocked, SHOCKED, that Americans not only eat rice, but that we actually produce a lot of it. He assumed that rice was something Americans eat only on the rarest of rare occasions (and that some had never eaten rice at all)."

    Ahaha, that's hilarious, especially when you consider that the traditional hanja name for America, 米國, literally means "rice country."

  22. not many Asian countries have distinct seasons as Korea and Japan do. Many of my chinese friends and friends who came from southeast Asia have never seen snow before coming to Northwest part of USA.
    Korea also has some of the extremes of each seasons. hwangsa in the spring, monsoon in the summer, and blizzards/snow storms in the winter. This is not all that common in other parts of Asia.

  23. On a similar note, the Japanese get shocked -SHOCKED - that we, Yanks, actually know, like and appreciate good sushi and sashimi. Go figure.

    As a Vancouverite, I am shocked - SHOCKED - by this fact too, having had some of the most atrocious sushi in the world in NY. ;) Just kidding. I'm sure you guys have nice sushi...somewhere.

    It'd be nice to have four seasons instead of 'rainy' and 'dry'. :( I for one did not know that Korea had four very distinct seasons, and now kind of want to go see what real spring/autumns are like.

  24. @cqn lol the hanja name for america is actually spelled "美國" which means means "beautiful country," not "rice" country. dunno how you got that mixed up :-)

  25. In Romania, we have also 4 distinct seasons, we also have our cuisine influenced by seasons and also life depends on seasons too... still confused what is this talk about even thought this is the first time when I heard that koreans actually make a talk about it.

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  27. Cici, not to get off-topic, but you're looking on the wrong coast: LA of SF has many great sushi spots.

  28. "lol the hanja name for america is actually spelled "美國" which means means "beautiful country," not "rice" country. dunno how you got that mixed up :-) "

    No, you misunderstood me. I was referring to the traditional hanja representation (文化語/문화어), not the modern one. "美國" is indeed the modern representation of 미국, but the 文化語 is "米國." You can see it for yourself in the first line of the Korean Wikipedia page for the US:

  29. cqn, You are mixing up something. 문화어 is not "traditional" -- that is the standard script for North Korea.

  30. I've been told by a Korean person that Koreans are "proud" of having four seasons bc it separates them from South Asian countries. She told me that most Koreans believe that hot climate, as far as countries go, equals poverty - i.e. India, and most of SE Asia. So, being somewhat nouveau riche, Koreans tout their distinct seasons and are especially proud of their winter season. I'm guessing this is directed more towards outsiders who Koreans may think will group them with those other tanned and therefore less fortunate asians. I wouldn't put this thinking past them...What do you think? (btw, i am also korean-american so i believe i can also be critical of Koreans.)

  31. I think that Korea and Japan are in a never ending competition to prove how special and unique their respective countries are.

    There a LOT of "four seasons" ads in Japan...I go to Korea and see the same thing.

    "Our country is made of one homogeneous race."
    "Our country has 4 unique and special seasons."
    "Our country has a unique and special culture that cannot be understood by Westerners."
    "Our country has the world's hardest language, and it's impossible for foreigners, especially Westerners to learn it."
    "Korea/Japan is always copying our country."

    I look forward to the day when I get to hear all of this in Korean and not Japanese.

  32. Wow, we Koreans will boast about anything. I guess it comes from a deep rooted inferiority complex. This should gradually change as Korea takes its rightful place in the industrialized world.

  33. If the lack of self-awareness is one of the points which resulted in this outcome, wouldn't it be somehow an end-product of the education as well? Would it be the education syllabus are too much evolved around Korea, leading to which information around the world are significantly less and hence the problem of lack of self-awareness?

    Just curious.

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  35. I like Korea's four distinct seasons... for example, Spring 2009, which was the last time we had a really springy spring, winter 2009 (unlike the hellish winter 2010-11, which lasted all the way until friggin' April), or monsoon week, which lasted six this year, from the first week of july, until the floods in August, before the Dangun made it up to us with a full summer's worth of heat and humidity squeezed into four jimjilbang-like weeks.

    But spring and fall in Korea, when we get them, are the absolute greatest.

  36. Yeah, cqn, you are confused about the history of "미국". It wouldn't have made any sense for the older character to be 米 'rice', because that character was historically pronounced /mi/ in Chinese as well (and still is). Although sound changes, subsequent to the period of huge lexical borrowing from Chinese, have caused the characters for 'rice' and 'beautiful' to sound the same in contemporary Korean, this was not so at the time of borrowing -- the reason why the name for the U.S. uses the character for 'beautiful' is that in Chinese it sounded like /mei/, the stressed syllable of "America".

  37. Korean word for America: 美國.

    Japanese word for America: 米國.

    Actually, I this is the long form for "country." I think short form (약자) 国 is more commonly used.

  38. @guitard:

    That makes sense, because Japanese has adopted Chinese characters for a complex mix of semantic and phonetic representations, whereas Korean has stuck with the original even when pronunciations diverge.

  39. Isn't the much simpler explanation that Korea was an agricultural society only a generation ago?

    Certainly, for my great-grand parents the seasons were still very important, you couldn't buy the same food in the supermarket all year round.

    Korea is going in the same direction. I doubt that the next generation will think about the seasons any different from Europeans or United Staters.

  40. The Gingko is not "native to Korea". It was once - before modern trees existed - spread over much of the world, but then retreated to a small part of China. It is now common in Korea and Japan only because of human cultivation.

  41. It's funny...I can't say that anyone boasted about their four seasons to me during my time in Korea. However, the fact that their seasons more-or-less correspond to the seasons that I'm familiar with was comforting and helped me teach ideas of seasons, weather, etc. to my students. The interesting part was always how the conditions within the corresponding seasons compared. Showing pictures of your car buried under several feet of snow from one storm was a great shock and motivation for my students in Busan, which generally sees an accumulation of just a few inches.

    It also means you have to learn a whole new way of dealing with the differing seasons. The first time it snowed, I got up an extra hour early (as any good New Englander would) and then waited for a bus that never came. When I finally got to school...I was asked why I was there, as the centimeter of flakes had shut down the whole city, including all classes. ><

  42. Like a lot of the people who commented (as well as at least one of the original emailers) have pointed out, this comment also occurs with staggering frequency in Japan. I got this so often, in fact, that I learned how to say "Tokyo's latitude is almost the same as North Carolina's" before I even figured out the socially appropriate response to: "You have such a small face!"

    I appreciate the balanced explanation of something I couldn't quite put into words myself.

    Also, I'm enjoying the hell out of your blog. I lived in Japan for three years and didn't manage to visit Korea like I'd wanted to. I'm am hoping to visit at some point soon.

    Anyway, I'm currently writing a Korean character in one of my books and am finding a lot of the information on your blog really useful. I have my own experiences living abroad and learning a second language at a later age, but the specific difficulties are quite helpful. Most notably, about how you acquired language, and the depths to which you were able to express yourself at different points along the road to fluency.

    Also, fan death. Very helpful.

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  44. (edited from previously deleted comment for FAIL ENGLISH TYPOS)

    I feel the need to point out that the JAPANESE for America is 米国, which may be the source of some of the confusion. cqn isn't totally making shit up.

  45. I vaguely remember my high school history book (early 80s Ontario, Canada) saying that Japan was successful because it had a temperate climate much like England which encourages industriousness and a sharp intellect. I would not be surprised if the whole four seasons trope spread from Europe to Meiji Japan and then to Korea.

  46. kimchikraut said...
    I vaguely remember my high school history book (early 80s Ontario, Canada) saying that Japan was successful because it had a temperate climate much like England which encourages industriousness and a sharp intellect. I would not be surprised if the whole four seasons trope spread from Europe to Meiji Japan and then to Korea.

    kimchikraut, back in the day (i.e., pre-IMF) I heard more than a few KoKos tell me that Koreans were industrious compared to their southern neighbors (e.g., the Philippines, Southeast Asia, southern China, etc.) because the latter were prone to take siestas and breaks due to the hot weather and generally led a life of relative ease so they weren't used to working too terribly hard to get life's necessities.

    There may have been a bit of a racial component to that (i.e., the cold weather in Korea caused natural selection that favored people working hard in order to survive).

    Never mind that many Koreans are big on the siesta (natcham!).

    I mention this because it seems to fit in with your suggestion. I don't know, though, if this came about as a result of British/European exposure by way of Japan.

  47. Yeah, Koreans seem still pretty clumsy when talking with foreigners about cultures and climates. Especially the ones who're a little bit older.

    Another funny exmple is, when I say I'm from Croatia, they connect it with Russia, somehow, so they think it's very cold. But I came from the Croatian sea side, with a Mediterrainean climate, where winters are more or less 10 to 15°C during the day and around 0°C in the night (-5 or -7 if it's really really cold) so for me Korea, with the winters influenced by the Syberian air, is like Russia.

    Someone asked me if there were tangerins in my country. We've got not only tangerins, but olives and almonds as well. And I've actually never seen a tangerine tree in Korea, although they are selling them so much and so cheap (comparing to other fruit), but in my country I saw many self-growing trees here and there.

    But it's okay, I don't expect them to know about such a small and not so famous country as my little Croatia. I just wish they'd remeber my words and not ask the same thing twice, though....

    But it's not only Koreans. many western people too still know nothing about east Asia and don't even wanna learn, which makes them even clumsier. Call it Japan or call it Korea, for those people it's all China and they don't even wanna hear about anything else. And THAT is the irritating thing. Even dangerous, somehow, I think.

  48. A bit late in the game, but to complete Darin's comment, it's interesting to note that as part of Japan's nationalistic sciences (nihonjiron) developed after WW2 to emphasize Japan's uniqueness, the distinct four seasons bit apparently occupies a prominent place. Ironically, Japan's seasons might not be as distinct as that (I guess it really depends on where you locate yourself as the Japanese islands do cover quite a wide range of latitudes and probably climates as a consequence). Apparently, that theory is really a legacy of Chinese classical poetry which has a thing for the four seasons (at least according to That leaves me wondering whether Korea might not have got the idea from Japan itself.

  49. Well~ I'm Korean and I tell you why Koreans love to saying "There are four seasons in Korea." When Koreans has to introduce their country to overseas people, the Koreans used to say "we have four seasons", but actually they would say the four season are distinct and clear. In fact, they were not enough to describe in perfect English and Korea didn't have anything to tout boastfully after Korea war or colonization. But introduce must goes on. They had to say anything about the nation. No Koreans would boast about the seasons, Not because of it comes from a deep rooted inferiority complex like Digirati commented. It was the only the one advantage thing... And the most important thing is!! Most of westerners are so dumb at geography, so many stupid westerner think of Korea is rainy all the time and has the largest jungle bush like the amazon nation of south east Asia.. They don't even know which country is nice between north or south Korea. Anyway That is why Koreans keep injecting about 4 seasons into westerner's brain.

  50. You do not live in Korea until everything happened so you are not the one to introduce these things. Inferiority complex? LMAO. We say this because we learn this steretypically in social and history class every year! Korea has 4 seasons and 1 ethnic for 1000 years!!! You guys are deluded prick

  51. And you think you are eastern lol and you call yourself Korean because it sounds cool. get a life please.... It is because of 주입식 교육! Not that complicated like you pricks making out theories. (Inferior complex and four seasons, wut o_O??)


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