[WHY] Social dilemma behind the Korean age controversy
Yun Young, a 36-year-old Seoul resident, had to stop and think for a second how many candles should go on her daughter’s birthday cake.
It wasn’t because she lost track of her daughter's age over the years. It had only been one year since she was born and yet Yun wasn’t sure whether there should be one or two candles, because based on so-called Korean age, babies are considered two years old on their first birthdays.
This is just one of many instances in which Koreans feel unsure of how to express their age.
When the government announced a slew of plans for Covid-19 vaccination and social distancing measures targeting people in different age brackets last year, many people were confused because the age counting method most commonly used by Koreans in their day-to-day life didn’t line up with the method used by the government in its announcements.
It’d be easier if there was just one age counting method, but in Korea, there are three, each used for different purposes.
While there have been failed attempts in the past to unify the age counting system, most recently, the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration has vowed to make it happen as early as next year, and the younger generations of Koreans mostly seem to support the idea.
Why does Korea have three different age counting methods and why has the issue come up again recently?
The three methods
Under the Korean age system, the most widely used age calculation method, an individual turns one on the day they are born and everyone gets one year older on the first day of every new year. This method has been adopted in the past by a number of eastern Asian countries like China and Japan, but Korea is the only one currently using this system.
Although it is unclear exactly where the tradition comes from, a common explanation as to why Koreans consider babies to be a year old immediately after birth is because the time inside mothers’ womb is considered the first year of life.
One thing is for sure though — this method makes Koreans age one to two years faster than their international peers.
The second method used by Koreans is the globally recognized international system, where age is calculated based on an individual's birthday and the first birthday is celebrated one full year after birth. This system is used mostly for Korea’s legal or official matters.
Then there is also the third method, which calculates age by the year of birth, regardless of the month. So people turn a year older at the beginning of each year, like in the Korean age system, but counting starts from zero, like the international age system. This method was adopted for administrative efficiency by grouping people simply by the year they were born in. Some laws determining age using this method include the Juvenile Protection Act and the Military Service Act.
Based on these three different methods, boy band BTS member Jungkook, for instance, today could be either 24, 25 or even 26.
Born on Sept. 1, 1997, he is 26 by Korean age, but internationally he is only 24. When he is considered for military service in Korea, the Military Service Act will see him as 25.
Why it's stuck around
Surely even the commonly-used Korean way of counting age creates a lot of confusion, so why has Korea kept it for so long even as other countries like China and Japan decided to switch to the international age counting system around the mid-1900s? Even North Korea has been using the international age system exclusively since the 1980s.
Korea did make an attempt to use the international age system in the public sector. In 1962, the government declared age based on the international counting system would be the official age. So Korea’s civil laws already uses the international age system.
Only a number of laws adopted the third method — grouping people by the year of birth — for administrative efficiency, but other than that, government offices are already using international age.
But in their daily lives, Koreans keep the tradition of Korean age.
“People used it out of tradition, but I don’t think they thought the system was even [problematic] in the past,” said Kim Eun-ju, a public administration professor at Hansung University, in a phone interview. “Globalization had an impact, especially with young Koreans traveling overseas a lot. They started to think Korean age is problematic because it's different from the age used in all other parts of the world. Voices saying the Korean age system should be transformed grew from the late 2000s and early 2010s.”
The language issue
The Korean language itself, which reflects the Confucius culture deeply rooted in Korea, presents an obstacle to changing the system.
In Korea, age is directly related to one’s social ranking. Korean language makes it impossible to not consider age or status when communicating, and unless a hierarchy can be easily determined by one’s job or title, age is the ultimate determining factor.
There is a different set of words and phrases, called jondaetmal, that is used when speaking to older people or those higher in rank. For instance, you can greet people the same age or younger than you with a simple annyeong, or hi, but it has to be annyeonghaseyo, with the special suffix, when addressing your seniors or during first encounters.
There are even specific titles, like oppa, hyung, eonni, or noona, to name a few, to be used when addressing people even a year older.
In English, simply calling people by their names regardless of age is generally completely acceptable. Though of course there are linguistic manners that would call for the correct use of titles or such in particular situations, most people wouldn’t give a second thought about what sort of language they would have to use to those a year or two older than themselves.
The customs reflected in the Korean language has made it difficult for Koreans to live according to the international age system.
If Koreans used the international age system, students, for example, technically would need to know the birthdays of every one of their peers to know what kind of language to use.
Titles would be just as confusing. Two people born in the same year in different months would, for a time, be the same age, but then later in the year one would be older, and then a bit later they would be the same age again, requiring the two to switch titles and language used between themselves twice in one year.
These examples may seem a bit exaggerated, but until there is a set rule that can completely substitute age when determining how people speak to each other, it will be difficult for any substantial, tangible changes in the age counting system.
Koreans want change
Despite the cultural barriers, a growing number of Koreans are calling for change.
According to a survey by market research firm Hankook Research held in December last year on 1,000 Koreans, 82 percent of respondents used Korean age when telling their age to someone else; 71 percent thought that the country should only use international age and stop using Korean age.
The results show a stark contrast to a past survey done by another market research firm, Realmeter, in 2016. Then, 46.8 percent of the 529 respondents said Korean age should be kept, and 44 percent said the country should only use international age.
Asked to choose the major reasons why they wanted change, 53 percent of the respondents to the Hankook Research survey said the biggest reason is to reduce the confusion and social costs created in the legal and administrative sector. Fifty percent also said the change is necessary to align with international standards.
Analysts mostly say that in the long run a unified age counting method would bring the country’s social cost down, after dealing with a few years of possible confusion.
“It’s difficult to measure exactly how much social cost there will be in the process of unifying the age counting system,” Kim said. “But my belief is that in the long run, the social benefit will be greater than the cost.”
The Yoon administration’s major grounds for pushing this change has also been to reduce unnecessary social costs incurred by people’s confusion.
While Koo Jeong-woo, sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University, also agrees that having a single, international age system would be one step toward reducing social costs and confusion, he said Koreans’ tendency to try and sort out social ranks will not likely change even with a new age system largely due to the deeply rooted collectivistic culture.
“Social hierarchy stands at the center of a collectivistic culture,” Koo told the JoongAng Ilbo. “People will still want to confirm where they stand in society and try to set the ranks straight.”
◇ Interesting terms related to age in Korea ◇
The concept of bbareun
It’s not difficult to find some Koreans describing their age as bbareun and then the year they were born in: for instance, “I’m bbareun '88.”
Adding the bbareun, meaning quick or early, simply means that they were born in either January or February of that year, which technically makes them older than most others born in the same year.
This way of grouping came about due to the fact that the Korean school year starts in March. Before 2009, these bbareun-borns were able to enter schools a year earlier than their peers. Because the bbareun borns were in a senior class compared to others born in the same year, people usually considered them a year older. So a girl born in March of 1988 would customarily call a boy born in February the same year "oppa," because he would have been in the class above her.
But this created much confusion later on because some would agree to consider themselves the same age, because they were born in the same year, and not use specific titles like oppa, hyeong, noona or eonni between them. This often happens in college when high school classes don’t matter as much.
To ease the confusion, the government ruled in 2009 that those born in January and February are to enter elementary school in the same year as others born in the same year. However, the culture still lives on among the young adults who lived with the bbareun-borns.
Jokbo is something like a family tree in Korean, but it is often used in broader terms to describe people’s social networks. Bbareun-borns oftentimes were blamed for mixing up ranks within the social network because if a “bbareun '88” decided to become friends with a person born in, let’s say, November 1988, and later find out they both have a friend born in 1987, the situation can get awkward if all three get together. If the bbareun '88 considers the mutual friend to be the same age but the November-born '88 considers the friend to be their senior, the social ranks gets mixed up.
Although not an official Korean phrase like bbareun or jokbo breaker, when talking about the age system in Korea, people commonly refer to how their age marked on the paper bags given out at pharmacies is one to two years younger than their Korean age.
Hospitals and pharmacies use international age. Though people may not generally visit public offices very often, they like to keep check of their younger international age whenever they get medicine from pharmacies.
BY KIM JEE-HEE [email@example.com]