When meeting someone for the first time, Koreans usually act depending on how old the other person is: the older the person, the more polite they tend to be. Likewise, age has been a large part of determining the social relationship among Koreans. Given this social context, however, it is ironic that Korean people have various ages since they do not have a unified age system, which could get them confused. Koreans have a maximum of three ages: Korean age used for casual occasions, International age by law, and Annual age used only for some particular laws such as the Military Service Law or Juvenile Protection Act.
The following are specific examples of how the current Korean age systems could be confusing. Let us take an example of a man born on November 2000. As of June 2017, he has three ages: 16, 17, and 18. In Korean age, newborns start at the age of 1 year, and at the every New Year’s Day, 1 year is added to their age: he is 18. In International age, on the other hand, newborns start at the age of 0, and at every their own birthday, 1 year is added to their age: he is 16. Lastly, in Annual age, newborns start at the age of 0, but at every New Year’s Day, 1 year is added to their age: he is 17. Furthermore, in Korean age, a newborn child born on December 31st, 2016, will be 2 from the next day. As of January 1st, 2017, the child and the other child born on January 1st, 2016, are the same Korean age though the other child is about to speak some words but still the newborn might still be in a maternity hospital.
Due to these kinds of somewhat complicated and awkward situations, not a few people feel skeptical about using Korean age. Realmeter, a Korean polling firm, recently polled 529 Korean people, who are aged 19 and over, about their stance on the unification of age systems into International age: 46 percent said “it is desirable to maintain current age system” while 44 percent said “unification into International age is necessary.” The public opinion over the debate on unification into International age seems to be quite strained.
Proponents of the unification of current age systems strongly argue that the unification is necessary in order to follow the trend of the world and to reduce social confusion. The world is using International age. Since Korea is the only nation that uses other age systems as well as International age, it can interfere with the preparation of international documents or communication with foreigners. In addition, International age is a reasonable age calculation. When it comes to Korean age, the time to get older is different for each person, while using International age is reasonable in that everyone gets older after one year from their own birthday. Also, by using International age, medical and administrative confusion can be reduced. In our society, the medical and legal standards are based on International age, so using Korean age could bring about potential accidents into society. Lee Chang-won, the professor of the Department of Administration at Hansung University, supports those points: “It is confusing and complicated that a person is one but the age of the person is several. So, it inevitably makes people explain their age several times and thereby takes time and expense in public sector.”
Opponents of the unification of current age systems take a different position. Their main point is that Korean age should be preserved because it is our tradition and culture. Korean age is our indispensable tradition and culture. Koreans are accustomed to using Korean age and have lived without great inconvenience until now. Therefore, it is irrational to abolish Korean age just because other countries are calculating their age differently from us. Besides, using International age can cause confusion in the social relationship among Koreans. In the case of most foreign countries, there is no strict social hierarchy determined by age, so there is no obstacle to the use of International age. In Korea, however, it is possible to cause social confusion because of the importance of courtesy among people. Plus, Korean age and International age can be used in parallel. If we cannot use Korean age without being prepared for the change, it will not only cause discomfort to the people but also cause more confusion because it would disharmonize with our tradition. Thus, to avoid such confusion, it is best to use them in parallel. Choi Yeong-gap, a representative of Confucianism Broadcasting System of Sungkyunkwan University said in relation to these points: “Foreigners may find it hard to calculate the Koreans’ age, but this is only a confusion caused by cultural differences. Therefore, it is not right to say that this kind of confusion is bad, good or raising expensive social costs.”
We often say that “age is just a number” but it does not seem to match the current situation. In Korea, age is not just considered as a number, but rather as a number which is a mixture of Korean traditional language and culture. As a result, the debate on unification of age systems ultimately results in a debate on preservation of our tradition and culture, which seems not to end easily. Considering our age is subject to change, how can we define our real age? Which food gets our age increases, seaweed soup on birthdays or rice cake soup on New Year’s Day?
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