02.11.14

Virginia Gets In Middle Of Geography Fight Between Japan And South Korea

In response to political pressure from Korean American voters, the Sea of Japan will soon officially also be known as the East Sea in Virginia

What do you call the body of water that separates Japan from North and South Korea (as well as Russia)?

In Virginia, at least, you don't call it the Sea of Japan.

The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation last week requiring that all new school textbooks in the Old Dominion also label the Sea of Japan as the East Sea. Koreans have long chafed that the body of water is named after Japan, which colonized Korea in the early 20th century. The result has been a concerted Korean campaign to at least make the Korean name for the body "the East Sea" coequal in the eyes of mapmakers with the commonly used Sea of Japan. The bill is expected to be signed by Governor Terry McAuliffe.

This became a campaign issue in the 2013 Virginia governor's race when the large Korean-American community in Northern Virginia successfully pressured McAuliffe as well as his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, to endorse the change. However, it brought great concern from the Japanese government, which said that it could endanger the billion dollars in investments that Japanese companies have made in Virginia over the past five years.

The furor is relatively over very low stakes. After all, it’s about adding the label East Sea next to Sea of Japan on maps, not even replacing it.  But it serves as a symbol of the new ethnic politics in the United States. For decades, politicians appealing for votes from ethnic communities had to take certain stands on foreign policy issues. Every politician in Massachusetts would be adamantly against British policy in Northern Ireland, every elected official on Long Island would ardently support the State of Israel and California politicos would do their utmost to appropriately commemorate the Armenian Genocide. This is simply a new variation on that old pattern and marks the increasing importance of Asian-American voters in electoral politics.