Categorized | ICLEI, News, Opinion


I have been told there are two bills pending, one by Senator Dave Marsden and the other by Del. Tim Hugo that wouldanswer once and for all a weighty question:  Should all Virginia textbooks to teach that the Sea of Japan is also called the East Sea.

WHAT, Sandy?  Tell me again?

I kid you not.  Here’s the Marsden bill and here’s the Hugo bill (They are identical):

§ 1. That all textbooks approved by the Board of Education pursuant to § 22.1-238 of the Code of Virginia, when referring to the Sea of Japan, shall note that it is also referred to as the East Sea.

Now there are a lot of things I would like the schools to teach:  The truth about Abraham Lincoln only one of a long list!  But this is a dangerous incursion into foreign policy by a state that has no constitutional competence to handle it.

If you look at the Richmond Sunlight sites for these bills, there are an amazing number of comments (174 and counting!).  Some of the comments are at best insensitive.

What’s the story, Sandy:

The Sea of Japan is the body of water between Japan and Korea.  Naturally, Japan and Korea disagree about the name.  The issue is of course political and nationalistic.  Both Koreas, in a rare agreement, reject the Sea of Japan and use “East Sea” .  Wikipedia, which is not admittedly very scholarly but in this case seems like a thorough treatment of the issue, raises several questions:

The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), the UN agency that helps to name bodies of water, has not taken a definite stand on this issue but did say this is 2012:

On 26 April 2012, the IHO announced that it had decided to use only “Sea of Japan” in its governing publication Limits of Oceans and Seas and rejected the alternative use of “East Sea” as proposed by South Korea. According to the South Korean government, the organization will again discuss the issue of the name when it reconvenes in 2017. [footnote omitted]

The UN has not decided yet either.  In fact, they ducked it:

On 6 August 2012, representatives from North and South Korea addressed an assembly at the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, asking that the names “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan” be used concurrently for the sea. Ferjan Ormeling (nl), chairman of the conference, responded that the organization had no authority to decide the issue and requested that the involved countries resolve the differences over the name amongst themselves. [footnote omitted]

The United States Government takes this position:

The United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) continues to advocate the use of Sea of Japan without qualification in U.S. government publications. The World Factbook published by the Central Intelligence Agency follows the BGN’s guidance.[47] On 8 August 2011, a spokesman for the United States Department of State stated that the United States Board on Geographic Names considered the official name of the sea to be “Sea of Japan.” According to Yonhap, the US has officially recommended to the IHO that “Sea of Japan” remain as the official name for the sea.[48] In response to this failure of the Korean campaign, Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan suggested advocating other historical names, such as “Sea of Korea”.[49]


On 29 June 2012, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M. Campbell affirmed the BGN’s position in his response, published on the White House website, to a We the People petition concerning the usage of “Sea of Japan”, in which he stated, “It is longstanding United States policy to refer to each sea or ocean by a single name. This policy applies to all seas, including those bordered by multiple countries that may each have their own names for such bodies of water. 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.”[52] He also stated, “We are aware the Republic of Korea refers to the body of water as the ‘East Sea,’ and the United States is not asking the Republic of Korea to change its nomenclature. U.S. usage of the ‘Sea of Japan’ in no way implies an opinion regarding any issue related to sovereignty.”[53]

So the Federal Government takes the position that this body of water is called the Sea of Japan.

Now I am sensitive to the Koreans’ plight:  In 1910 Korea was annexed as part of the Japanese Empire and this status continued until after the Second World War.  Korea became independent again but alas divided into the Communist North and the democratic South (although South Korea’s democratic history has not always been stellar) which it remains to this day.  I also am aware that horrible atrocities occurred in Korea (and other nations, too, and to Americans, too) at the hands of the Japanese in the Second World War.  (I am also joyfully aware of the fabulous Holy Ghost revival in South Korea in the last few decades.  I am pained to hurt my Korean brethren in Christ, both in the USA and in Korea, over this.)  If I were given authority to select the name and it were left up to me, I might well agree with the Koreans on the name or at least the proposal made several years ago by the South Korean leader to Japanese Prime Minister Abe that the name of the sea become the Sea of Peace or Sea of Friendship.

But it is not my call to make.  And it should not be, with all due respect, Senator Marsden’s or Delegate Hugo’s.  The US has taken the position that this body of water is named the Sea of Japan.  Thus it is in effect Virginia taking a foreign policy position contrary to the Federal government which has that plenary position.  The Japanese ambassador has already spoken his concerns (This is from the Japan Times article):

“I wonder if it is fair in primary and secondary education to (only) back one side over a matter of international dispute,” Kenichiro Sasae told a group of Japanese reporters in Washington.


“I’m concerned about this kind of move,” Sasae said. “We will make efforts to make sure the move (in Virginia) does not spill over” to other parts of the United States.

Now, I especially, am not going to sit around and say cities and towns and counties cannot take foreign policy positions by joining ICLEI, and then turn around and bless this incursion by Virginia into a acute foreign policy dispute involving two of our allies (Japan and South Korea).  There could even be riots and Americans killed over this.  These bills ought to be killed promptly and Governor McAuliffe needs to meet with the Japanese ambassador and exp;lain any representative can introduce any bill and then mildly apologize for butting into a dispute none of Virginia’s business.  And let the State Board of Education handle it in a neutral manner that says as a footnote to teachers, Korea calls this body of water the East Sea but the US calls it the Sea of Japan.

About Elwood Sanders

Elwood "Sandy" Sanders is a Hanover attorney who is an Appellate Procedure Consultant for Lantagne Legal Printing and has written ten scholarly legal articles. Sandy was also Virginia's first Appellate Defender and also helped bring curling in VA! (None of these titles imply any endorsement of Sanders’ views)


  1. Japanese says:

    “as a footnote to teachers, Korea calls this body of water the East Sea”

    No, sir. Koreans call the sea “Dong Hae”, “Dong” meaning east and “Hae” meaning sea. This Korean college professor with long teaching career in the US says, “the East Sea was used even before the time of Christ”, but that is untrue.
    The sea was mealy called “Dong Hae” in Korean, not “East Sea” in the English language.

    We are seeing a rare opportunity that an untruth becomes a truth, by the passage of this bill in Virginian legislature. After the passage, Virginian school kids will learn “the sea was called East Sea even before the time of Christ”.


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Tom White Says:

Nothing is more conservative than a republican wanting to get their majority back. And nothing is more liberal than a republican WITH a majority.

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