The US State of Virginia has recently voted to include the name “East Sea” in its history and geography textbooks, alongside what is now marked only as the “Sea of Japan”.
VIRGINIA: The US State of Virginia has recently voted to include the name “East Sea” in its history and geography textbooks, alongside what is now marked only as the “Sea of Japan”.
The House of Delegates passed the bill in a vote of 81 to 15, and once it is signed into law, Virginia will be the first American state to include “East Sea”, South Korea’s name for the stretch of water.
The move appears to show that Korean Americans have been mobilised by their country’s increasingly strained relationship with Tokyo.
Peter Y Kim, a Korean American lawyer living in Annandale in Virginia, was shocked when he caught a glimpse of his son’s fifth grade geography textbook recently.
“We found out that the actual textbook, the World Civilisations, only says “Sea of Japan”, (for the sea) between Korea and Japan,” he said.
Mr Kim, who is the president of the Voice of Korean Americans, was upset that the name he grew up learning was not being passed on to his children.
“So I got really frustrated, I got upset, I told them, that’s not true, this particular sea is called the East Sea,” he said.
It is a source of bitterness for the community that the name “Sea of Japan” became the worldwide standard back in the 1920s, while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule.
So Mr Kim and other Korean activists decided to do something about it on behalf of the 82,000 Koreans in Virginia.
They persuaded Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen, who is married to a Korean American and received significant Korean American support in winning his seat, to push for a law to revise the books.
Japan hired a team of lobbyists to defend its position, stressing that “Sea of Japan” was the only internationally recognised name, and was in use from the 19th century, before Japanese colonial rule.
But when it came to a vote, Seoul won by a wide margin — 81 to 15.
Mr Petersen thinks it is a sign that Korean Americans are becoming more politically active.
“I think the Korean population has become much more organised and much more sophisticated.
“And I’ve had people that have supported me, and again, my wife’s Korean so there’s a natural link for me, but people who supported me said ‘you’ve got to stand with us on this issue. And we expect you to stand with us,’” he said.
The Obama administration is also clearly well aware of the growing importance of the Korean American vote — last summer, South Korean President Park Geun-hye addressed a joint session of Congress, a rare honour even for America’s closest allies.
Around 6 per cent of Mr Petersen’s constituents are Korean American, but Mr Petersen said the latest move will not affect any bigger, national ties with Tokyo.
“I’ve made the point that America and Japan are great allies and they have been for almost 70 years.
“People are still going to buy Toyotas and buy Hondas and buy Sony televisions and that’s not going to change. This has nothing to do with any sort of antipathy towards the Japanese. This is a local issue.”
Virginia’s governor is expected to sign the bill into law within the next few weeks — a sign that the Korean American community is now very firmly on the map.