What's the point of a paper if nobody can read?
April 7, 2016 9:55 AM   Subscribe

After the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 40s, my great grandfather was the culture editor of an English language newspaper that published in Korea. That's cool and all but many Koreans in those days were illiterate in Korean never mind English. So who would buy and read this newspaper and what's the point?

I'm a philistine and can't think up any satisfying answers to this question.

Also, the purpose of newspapers with English language editions like (e.x. Al Jazeera) and how that might contrast with the purpose of a Korean paper in the 40s. English language newspapers definitely have their place and I enjoy reading the issues they cover and the different perspectives they necessarily have, but I assume Al Jazeera has more penetration worldwide than this paper ever did.

Thanks in advance!
posted by maykasahara to Society & Culture (14 answers total)
Maybe there were a small number of Koreans who read English who bought the paper?

In order to publish something (a newspaper, a book, a blog, what have you), you need an audience. But you don't need a huge audience. For about a year I live-tweeted my way through the Star Trek franchise, and I had a loyal following of maybe a dozen people who happened to like Star Trek and be committed users of twitter. That was enough for me to feel like keeping up with the project was worthwhile. I didn't need an entire nation of rabid Trekkies with great social media bona fides.

Another idea is that it could have been funded by a group who wanted there to be an English newspaper in Korea for Reasons. Classically this would be propaganda, but it could be anything from wanting to create/maintain a community (for example the reason Yiddish media has existed in New York long after Yiddish stopped being the primary language of any but a few New Yorkers) to wanting to promote the use of English or ideas/social mores associated with English in Korean culture.

A third idea is that English might have been a lingua franca for international types living in Korea at that time. Maybe you don't have a ton of native English speakers, but you have a diverse group of speakers of different languages, and their main commonality is that they also speak English.
posted by Sara C. at 10:08 AM on April 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure exactly what's shocking about this. Literacy in the US before 1800 was even lower (below 20%) but newspapers were widespread anyway. There are community newspapers today with circulation in the hundreds or fewer. A newspaper can be worth printing even if it doesn't reach millions of readers.

Do you know anything about the content of the paper? That would tell you a lot about the target audience. Perhaps they were foreigners living in Korea, or perhaps they were mostly people outside the country with an interest in news from the peninsula.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:10 AM on April 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

The elites who ran Korea immediately after the end of the war would have spoken English in the south, or Russian in the north. South Korea at the time was under occupation by American forces, so that would have meant there would have been an intelligentsia that spoke English, and had an interest in Western culture.
posted by My Dad at 10:14 AM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Did the newspaper have photos and cartoons? Image-based advertizing? Even without words, the presence and style of images conveys a lot; I could see this newspaper being a cultural example showing a non-reader what the English-speaking community thought was important enough to make news articles about. Also, word-of-mouth: if one guy in the village could read it, that might inform the whole area.
posted by aimedwander at 10:15 AM on April 7, 2016

Perhaps it was believed there was an audience in the United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48)?
posted by Mister Bijou at 10:15 AM on April 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Just to clarify -- when you say "After the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 40s", do you mean before the end of WWII?
posted by Etrigan at 10:22 AM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

This article briefly addresses the issue. English publishing in Korea goes way back.

"There is also a long history of an English language press operating in Korea. Because many of the English-language periodicals explicitly dealt with what was often referred to as the "Japan problem," they are relevant to this discussion. Many of these were missionary periodicals such as The Korea Review,published monthly by Homer Bezaleel at the Methodist Publishing House (1901-1906), and others such as The Morning Calm (1890-?) and The Korea Methodist(1904-05). The very first English-language newspaper printed in Seoul was The Independent(1896-1899). Advertised as the only English-language newspaper in Korea, it professed to offer "fairly accurate" information on all Korean topics. With correspondents stationed throughout Korea, it hoped to report on issues inside as well as outside of Seoul. The advertising section reveals the foreigners involved in the Korea trade. The Taehan Maeil Sinbo (English title, The Korea Daily News) was first published in 1904 in Korean and English by Earnest T. Bethell, a British correspondent for the Daily News of London. The publication, which was supported by both British and Korean capital, was strongly antagonistic to the Japanese. At one point Bethel was even imprisoned by the Japanese. An English language newspaper called The Seoul Press was issued by the Japanese Resident General's Office in reaction against The Korea Daily News. Beginning in 1906 under Motosada Tomoto, the former publisher of The Japan Times, The Seoul Press was therefore an instrument of propaganda to counteract the damage that had already been done to Japan's image in the English language press."
posted by JanetLand at 10:37 AM on April 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Important to note that, for example, the English-language Japan Times and the Korea Times are both aimed these days at English-language learners, and are generally not intended for an audience whose first language is English (there are just not enough "foreigners" in either country to form a sustainable readership).
posted by My Dad at 10:43 AM on April 7, 2016

Possibly propaganda, and/or cover for intelligence operations?
posted by praemunire at 11:19 AM on April 7, 2016

posted by MsMolly at 11:21 AM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Various embassies, ambassadors, any English-speaking enclaves of expats, business representatives, foreign military stationed there, etc. etc.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:21 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Presumably there were foreign English speakers there at that time who would want to know what was going on. There also must have been a small minority of Koreans who did know English and wanted to keep up or improve their skills.

In China, where I used to live, there are numerous English-language newspapers and magazines. I know that there are way more English-speakers in China now than there were in Korea then, but the English paper there probably had similar reasons for existing.
posted by bearette at 1:05 PM on April 7, 2016

Also, if you have a household with a single literate person in it, that person can read aloud to everyone else. Newspapers are not actually totally inaccessible to illiterate people.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:01 PM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

chiming in with showbiz_liz

This was one way in which newspapers were "read" in the UK in the 19th century. In fact there were some instances where one person would read aloud to many others on the street.

Not to say this was a common practice in Korea, just that literacy does.not automatically match to access.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 9:52 PM on April 7, 2016

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