During the colonial era, Korean literacy was conditioned and restricted by a complex writing system which consisted of Korean alphabet (Hangŭl), two systems of Japanese syllables (Hiragana, Katakana), and Chinese characters (Kanji). This article contextualizes the various reports on the rates of literacy in Korea under colonial multi-lingual multi-literal situation. In this paper I closely examine the contexts and the methods of the literacy surveys as well as the results of them. I contextualized the literacy surveys in four historical situations.
I. Census was used to measure the extent of national power. In 1930, the Japanese Empire conducted literacy census in its colonies and occupied territories to ascertain to what extent colonial education had diffused. In 1944, the Korean Government-general took the census of school career of Korean residents to gather information about human resources in order to put them to use in the total war.
II. In the colonial era, the peasant's need for literacy increased. Especially in Noson Shinko Undo (Rural Development Project) held in 1930's, colonial bureaucrats investigated the literacy of Korean peasants because this project required peasants to use documents such as household bookkeeping.
III. Factory workers also required literacy to learn their skills. Some institutions of commerce and industry conducted literacy surveys of workers in order to obtain basic data for social politics.
IV. Colonial bureaucrats investigated the literacy rate of the criminals because they thought that illiteracy causes crime. But I could not find any causal relationship between the two.
From this we may draw the following conclusions: 1. The research addressed colonial practical problems; 2. Their indices of literacy were basically alternative which in consequence ranked the research objects; 3. Colonial bureaucrats and Korean nationalists had different outlooks on literacy research; 4. We can see the obvious disparity of distribution of literacy between Japanese and Korean, males and females, the younger generation and the older, the urban residents and the rural population, landlords and tenants.