Support our mission
 

SEOUL — To many U.S. servicemembers and civilians in Japan and South Korea, the ongoing dispute between the two nations over the “proper” name of a relatively small body of water seems overblown. Sea of Japan? East Sea? What’s the difference?

According to government officials and scholars in both nations, what appears to many foreigners an insignificant dispute is actually an issue that compresses decades of mutual enmity, suspicion and misunderstanding between South Korea and Japan.

The latest salvo in the battle over what to call the body of water bounded by Japan, Russia and the Korean peninsula is a Japanese delegation sent to the U.S. Library of Congress, seeking to prove that a higher percentage of antique maps uses “Sea of Japan” rather than “East Sea.”

In 2002, a similar fact-finding mission sent by South Korea claimed that 60 percent of the maps used “East Sea” or “Sea of Korea,” so the name should be changed in all international textbooks and maps.

(Stars and Stripes, like many other publications, follows the Associated Press style and uses Sea of Japan.)

The dispute, officials from both countries admit, comes down to simple pride.

“The East Sea controversy is a major pride issue to Koreans, especially the younger generations who want to show the rest of the world that Korea is not merely a war-torn country or a nation that’s been bullied for years,” said a South Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism spokesman.

“By naming the sea after Japan, it is almost as if Japan is claiming the rights to the sea. We want everyone to understand that the East Sea does not belong to Japan and therefore should not be referred to as the Sea of Japan any longer,” the spokesman said.

“It is not only an issue between Japan and Korea; we hope that all publications throughout the world update their information and refer to it as the East Sea because it doesn’t just belong to Japan, it belongs to all people in the east.”

To many Koreans, the name is an emotional vestige of Japan colonial rule over Korea, which ran from 1910 until the end of World War II.

The Japanese take it no less seriously. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in fact, has an entire Web page devoted to the issue (www.mofa.go.jp/policy/maritime/japan/index.html), with dozens of links to material supporting Japan’s position. In April 2004, the ministry points out, the United Nations reiterated that it recognizes “Sea of Japan” as the correct name.

“Sea of Japan is the mono- name (sic) of the area, recognized internationally,” the Web site reads. “Government of Japan takes this position since past (sic) and is determined to argue against the assertion without any ground. Japan calls on international community to understand and support our position to assure the mono-name Sea of Japan.”

The dispute has stretched to include a group of barren, rocky islands in the East Sea/Sea of Japan called Tokdo by South Korea, and Takeshima by Japan. Though uninhabited, both Japan and South Korea say they are an integral part of their territories.

South Korea has a helipad and lighthouse on the islands, and in January issued a set of postage stamps depicting the “Tokdo” islands. Japan reacted swiftly, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi demanding the stamps be withdrawn.

The naming disputes could lead to more serious concerns than diplomatic disagreements, some say.

“There is no immediate effect, but the long-term effects of territorial fights will most definitely have enough significance on the region to disturb peace and order among nations,” Han Suk-hee, a professor of Yonsei University, told the Korea Herald newspaper.

Han and other experts — including some foreign diplomats — fear that, taken to the worst case, the naming disputes could drive serious wedges between the Koreas, China and Japan.

Not everyone sees the historical disputes as rational.

“The issue is not very important,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo and an expert on the issues related to the Korean peninsula.

Shigemura says the average Japanese person is not interested in the issues such as rights of Takeshima and what the body of water between Japan and Korean peninsula is called.

“It won’t affects people’s lives — nothing to be lost or something that Japan has to pay for,” he said.

But, he acknowledged, the naming disputes raise issues of discrimination against the Korean people.

“Discrimination against the Korean people, which we call, ‘orientalism,’ may cause feelings of disdain to rise,” Shigemura said.

In the end, he says, time will solve the issue.

“It is just a name,” Shigemura said. “The issue needs to be handled calmly and not too emotionally.”

—Hana Kusumoto and Jennifer Kleckner contributed to this report.

Migrated

stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up