Koreans win in vote on Sea of Japan

February 08, 2014 - 2:21:30 am

Korean Americans clap after the passage of the Virginia House Bill 11 in Richmond on Thursday.

RICHMOND:  Two of America’s closest Asian allies played out their historic rivalry in the US state of Virginia on Thursday, with South Korea celebrating victory after state lawmakers approved legislation requiring that the Korean name for the Sea of Japan be included in new school textbooks.

Virginia’s House of Delegates voted 81-15 to approve the two-line bill, which requires “that all text books approved by the Broad of Education ... when referring to the Sea of Japan, shall note that it is also called the East Sea.”

The bill had already been approved by the state Senate. Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has veto power but spoke on behalf of the Korean perspective during his campaign for governor and is widely expected to sign the measure.

It was a significant victory for vocal campaigners among Virginia’s 82,000 Korean-Americans, who greatly outnumber the state’s 19,000 ethnic Japanese and showed up in the hundreds to cheer the vote in the state capital, Richmond.

The vote followed intense lobbying not only by Korean-Americans but the governments of South Korea and Japan which have been squabbling for years over the name for the sea, which separates their countries.

Japan’s campaign included warnings that Japanese investment in Virginia could be hurt by a negative outcome, while Japanese officials voiced concern that what they call a “test case” could spark similar campaigns elsewhere.

Peter Y Kim, a Virginia resident and president of the Voice of Korean Americans, said he hoped what happened in Virginia would spread.

“I hope that other Korean-Americans in other states will try to correct their textbooks,” he said. “It’s not just good for Korean-American children ... it’s good for all Americans.”

It is a source of intense bitterness for Koreans that the name “Sea of Japan” was standardised worldwide while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, after the International Hydrographic Organization, or IHO, published its definitive “Limits of the Oceans and the Seas” in 1929.

Japan argues that “Sea of Japan” is recognised by the United Nations and most big states, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and China. A long Korean campaign for recognition of the “East Sea” has so far failed to gain much traction.

On Tuesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that the “Sea of Japan” was the only internationally established name and said the US government recognised it as the sole official name.

“We must continue to firmly explain the correct way of thinking about the name Sea of Japan and our country’s position on the issue,” he said at a regular news conference in Tokyo. Relations between Seoul and Tokyo worsened after by a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a shrine to former military leaders that South Korea said showed a lack of contrition for Japan’s imperialist past. 

Virginia Delegate Tim Hugo, a Republican who sponsored the bill in his chamber, said he was surprised by the huge interest in the bill by both Korean- and Japanese-Americans.