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I looked up the word "illiteracy", and was offered many different possibilities. Here they are, with my personal take on the nuance behind their origins:

活字{かつじ}離{ばな}れ ("removed from printing"?)

文盲{もんもう} ("blind to writing"?)

無学{むがく} ("no learning"?)

無筆{むひつ} ("no writing ability?")

一文不通{いちもんふつ} ("no comprehension of writing"?)

一文不知{いちもんふち} ("no knowledge of writing"?)

非識字{ひしきじ} ("no character sense"?)

I think the last one might most directly correspond to literal "illiteracy".

But, in English we use the term "illiterate" two ways. One to generally describe someone we think of as uneducated or outright stupid. Another is to mean someone who is literally unable to read.

So what I'd like to know is:

Which of these Japanese words is the most commonly used form to describe the literal situation of a person unable to read?

Is that word synonymous with ignorance as it is in English? Are any of these words used to convey stupidity (in other words, used as an insult)?

Of all these words, which are commonly understood, and which are rarely used or reserved for special circumstances?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think 文盲 would be the best translation to describe someone who can't read or write, and 無学 would be the best word for someone uneducated and ignorant.

I don't think I've ever seen the words 無筆、一文不通、一文不知... I didn't even know how to read the latter two... (Maybe because I'm just so ignorant...)

As for 活字離れ, I think it's a rather new word, describing the tendency of Japanese younger generation's keeping away from all kinds of typed publication such as books, newspapers, novels etc.

I know 識字 so I can infer from the kanji combination of 非+識字 what it would mean, but still it's not familiar to me...

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+1 for "(Maybe because I'm just so ignorant...) " :) –  Questioner Feb 3 '12 at 4:56
@DaveMG ごめ~ん・・・(爆笑中) –  Choko Feb 3 '12 at 4:57

When illiteracy is discussed in formal/scientific/academic contexts, 非識字 is far more common than 文盲 in my experience. This is probably mainly because it is in a much more obvious relationship with 識字. It's also worth noting that some blind people find 文盲 offensive, making it less appealing especially in official contexts. However, as Chocolate's answer indicates, non-specialists might be more familiar with 文盲 and not see anything offensive in the term.

Re the first part of your second question, I don't think 非識字 is as easily used as an insult as English "illiterate" is (not least because it is scientific jargon), but no doubt you could use it to insult someone if you wanted to. And of course very few people would appreciate being labeled illiterate even if it was an impartial (and true!) scientific judgment.

Re the rest of the questions, I'll leave that to someone else.

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