Latest Setback in ‘East Sea’ Naming Dispute
Author: Crystal Kim
Posted: July 3rd, 2012
Filed Under: BLOG
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Photo via ohkpop


The “East Sea” naming dispute between South Korea and Japan has been making waves on the web, but the United States is trying to steer clear of the ongoing squabble.

“It is longstanding United States policy to refer to each sea or ocean by a single name,” said Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in a statement. “Concerning the body of water between the Japanese archipelago and the Korean Peninsula, longstanding U.S. policy is to refer to it as the ‘Sea of Japan.’”

The administration’s desire to remain uninvolved in the naming dispute doesn’t surprise David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.

“The U.S. has a policy of not taking sides, especially between two allies, and in this case the U.S. has held to that principle,” said Kang. “It was actually not realistic that the U.S. would take the side of the ROK over Japan … Can you imagine the outrage in Japan if the U.S. had decided to bow to Korean pressure?”

The longstanding argument concerns the reference to the body of water between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago as the “East Sea” versus the “Sea of Japan.”

Proponents for the “East Sea” name signed a petition titled “The East Sea – a FALSE history in our textbooks!” that has generated more than 102,000 signatures on the White House website. Those in opposition signed a petition titled “Sea of Japan -the authentic history in our textbooks! We are teaching our children the authentic history, so why change?” which received 29,160 signatures. Any petition on the White House website which generates more than 25,000 signatures requires a response.

The conflict surrounding the official labeling of the “East Sea” reflects the troubled historical issues and relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan – issues that are straining relations even today.

USC’s Kang defended Koreans who are continuing to fight for the “East Sea” name.

“While Koreans often get blamed for being ‘emotional’ over the issue, the Japanese are just as emotional about these issues,” he said. “That is, these are not rational issues that can somehow be decided by looking at the facts: they are psychological issues where two countries want to name something according to their own long-standing practice — of course that’s emotional.”

  • To Pennsylvasia

    What do you think of this?

    This happened in March 2010.

    This happened in 1928.

    Stop trolling a Korean site. It is you that should leave.

  • pennsylvasia

    #7: Okay, time for you to go away.

  • To Pennsylvasia

    “I was merely offering an opinion, not “whitewashing” anything.”

    Sure you were.

  • Pennsylvasia

    I was merely offering an opinion, not “whitewashing” anything. I appreciate David’s response, because he took the time to read and respond in a civil tone. I can’t say the same for #3, but that’s basically how the internet works, I know.

    David, when I meant Japan had more contact with the “west”, it predates the colonization of Korea. Japan was “opened”—very forcibly, I know—40 years before it colonized Korea, and since the 1860s Americans and Europeans had some awareness of it. The “Hermit Kingdom”, not so much. “The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan” is an interesting book on the topic of cultural exchange between the US and Japan during the late-1800s and early-1900s. That type of exchange simply wasn’t happening with Korea to the same extent, and so that’s why “Sea of Japan” became the default term in English. Yes, I know in other languages it has been referred to as “Sea of Corea” or some variation, but that didn’t stick in English.

    Given the friction between Korea and Japan over colonization, I can understand the desire to move away from “Sea of Japan”, even if it’s just symbolic. But I think “East Asian Sea” is a far better, far smarter choice than “East Sea” because (1) “East Sea” is still biased, and (2) there is already an East Sea in English. But, we’ll leave it to Japanese and Korean policymakers to sort it out, not random internet commenters.

  • Kyo-poh

    Anything Korea can get Japan to concede to is a moral victory for them. If you was Korean, you’d empathize. Even decades after WWII, Japan never conceded to nor showed contrition for their past war crimes. It was either answered with defiance and/or repudiation. Japan only shows contrition for Pearl Harbor; actually it’s not contrition, but rather fear…And this was after the U.S. showed what it could do with atomic energy, which was a condign punishment for Japan. You see, human nature is to fear those who kicked your ass the hardest; Korea never kicked Japan’s ass.

  • Adam

    I’ve lived in both Korea and the US and what really bothers me is how much effort is put into things like this and Dokdo island while other social issues like education, human trafficking take a backseat.

  • To Pennsylvasia

    The sea was originally named “Sea of Corea” and this was shown on Japanese maps as well. It was only during the colonization that the Japanese changed it to “Sea of Japan”. Korea has taken a diplomatic approach by suggesting “East Sea” as it is in the East instead of promoting “Sea of Corea”. Japan is very guilty of whitewashing history as you are doing on this post. It is so obvious that you do not “understand” both sides, but want to whitewash history as your Japanese brethen have a notorious history of doing.

  • David

    ^ Personally, I think East Asian Sea would be a decent substitute, but I disagree with some of what you write. First, Japan had more contact with the “West” because it had subjugated South Korea during the early 20th century and would not allow diplomatic relations from Korea. Colonized nations should have the ability to try to reclaim international understanding. Second, though this is more a matter of opinion, I don’t find it arrogant to use pressure, lobbying, and other means because it has not been used as a form of coercion nor is it ever tied to anything of substance (e.g., trade, etc.) but rather it is using discourse to act as a change agent.

  • Pennsylvasia

    I understand both sides of the issue, however it is presumptuous for South Korea to try to dictate how another country in another langauge names the body of water. 동해 in Korean is quite acceptable in Korean:, and it makes sense, and nobody will dispute its use in Korean, but it’s rather arrogant to try and force a foreign country to change the way it uses its language.

    If South Korea is interested in a more neutral, less Japan-centric name, why not propose “East Asian Sea”? Dictating “East Sea” in English is just as Korea-centric as “Sea of Japan” is Japan-centric, and doesn’t help the problem (the “East Sea” is, after all, only east of Korea). Even more outlandish is the “Korean Sea” proposals some extremists have put forth.

    Both sides are active: Korea toward changing the name, Japan to simply keeping it the way it is. The “Sea of Japan” eventually became more accepted because Japan, unlike Korea, had more contact with the western, English-speaking world way back when. However, I would urge Koreans to consider something more sensible—something like “East Asian Sea”—rather than fighting in vain to change one arguably biased name for something just as biased.

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