Thursday, April 26, 2012

"East Sea" versus "Sea of Japan" - The Korean Lobby Loses the Battle over 1928

The Korean-American community is pushing hard to have the sea east of Korea and west of Japan, commonly known as the Sea of Japan, labelled as the "East Sea" or at the very least "Sea of Japan/East Sea".  A recent push to have all Virginia geography textbooks label the sea with "East Sea" failed (northern Virginia has a large Korean-American population and they form a powerful voting bloc).  The same lobbying group is expected to appear before the U.S. Board of Geographic Names soon.  Finally, they e-mailed me with their claims and demands.

The lynchpin of their argument rest on the claim that the sea was universally known as "East Sea" until 1928, when Imperial Japan registered "Sea of Japan" with the International Hydrographic Organization to show to the world that they controlled "the sea like a lake which was engulfed by Japan and occupied Korea."  (There are claim of older European trade maps showing both names but both sides counter each other saying those were provisional cartographic markings or are merely ignored).  The Korean e-mail stated that English-language maps labelled the sea as the East Sea up until Imperial Japan forced the name change.

I decided to investigate.  Using the Complete National Geographic (let me print full size maps, please!) I was able to find the March 1904 map entitled "Korea and Manchuria" which shows "Japan Sea".  This map was made six years before Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and twenty-two years before the claimed 1928 Japanese policy change. 

Japan Sea was used for the body of water 22 years before the alleged 1928 name change.  Image courtesy of National Geographic
Only since 2003 has National Geographic began to use "East Sea".  In the July 2003 map "The Two Koreas" the text states National Geographic uses "Sea of Japan (East Sea)" but gives preference to East Sea when displaying water within Korea's borders.

The Japanese Government has released official statements that the 1928 claim is bogus.  On this point the Japanese are right and pro-Korean forces are wrong.


Chip said...

This whole debate lacks a fundamental understanding of language. Language is arbitrary. This means all names for geographical features are arbitrary. To explain this in terms of semiotics, the signifier (i.e., the name) has no necessary logical connection to the signified (i.e., the actual sea). Why must the name be "East Sea" or "Sea of Japan" as opposed to "Untitled Sea?" It doesn't. No necessary logical connection exists. With that in mind, talk about the "correct," "best," "most legitimate" name is nonsensical. The Koreans and Japanese do not seem to understand that no amount of history, maps, or arguments will change this fundamental fact about language and names.

Thus, we realize names are not chosen because of logical necessity. Rather, names are chosen and defended on the basis of arbitrary reasons. Some try to argue the oldest name is the correct name. No, that's nonsensical. Some try to argue the most common name is the correct name. No, that's also nonsensical. So, after you rub away all the reasons provided by both sides of the debate what are you left with? National pride. That is what this debate is really about.

The Koreans do not want the sea to be called "Sea of Japan." They incorrectly view "Sea of Japan" as giving Japan possession of the sea. They are pushing for the use of both names as a stop-gap solution before they can replace "Sea of Japan" with "East Sea," or preferably "Sea of Korea." They argue "East Sea" is neutral, but when you consider that they call the "Yellow Sea" by "West Sea" and the "East Sea of China" by "South Sea" then the non-netural nature of the name becomes clear. They clearly want the name to be reflective of Korea's possession of the sea. It doesn't matter what international law has to say about that.

The Japanese are in the stronger position because the name "Sea of Japan" was established well before the Japanese colonial period. They are seeking to maintain the status quo, but they are doing so because of national pride. To Japanese nationalists, renaming the sea to "East Sea" or "Sea of Korea" strikes them as "losing to Korea."

Thus, at its core, this issue is nothing more than Korea versus Japan in a battle of national pride. Even officials from both camps have recognized this and stated as such according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

That being so, the most reasonable approach is to ask both countries to put aside their pride and cherished names, and then come up with a neutral name. They should also include the Russians in the discussion as well. Of course, this approach is idealistic because we're dealing with national pride, and I learned long ago that it's impossible to discussion this issue openly and honestly with nationalists from either side. (They each love to accuse me of being from the other side.)

Just my $0.25 on the issue. :)

The Geography Lady said...

It has a lot to do with claims to minerals in the seabed, the EEZs. Also with the Dokdo Island dispute. I was privileged to attend the n in Seoul in Nov. 2009. A main point of the conference was Korea's claim to the islands and the East Sea name.
Korea is very diligently pushing its claims to the islands, and the extension of their resulting economic benefit.

Catholicgauze said...

Great comments, Chip and The Geography Lady. You two show the stupidity and wisdom over the name battle.

Chip said...

@The Geography Lady,

I have seen these claims, but they always seem to be rooted in the mistaken belief that "Sea of Japan" gives the Japanese possession of and control over the sea. Do you recall what line of reasoning they provided at the conference?