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August 12, 2009
What’s in a name? For Japan and Korea, everything

This map, courtesy of the CIA World Factbook, uses the “Sea of Japan” label, but Koreans demand it be called the “East Sea.”

Geographical names — the names of cities, countries and oceans — can kill.

You don’t think so? Try referring to the archipelago of 778 islands 300 miles off the coast of southern South America as the Falkland Islands, and an Argentinian may think you’re picking a fight. Their name for the British-controlled islands, for which they claim sovereignty, is Islas Malvinas. Britain and Argentina fought a war over the islands in 1982, and 907 people died.

A hapless Iranian journalist with the Associated Press in Tehran during the days of the shah received visits from the Iranian secret police, and was threatened with jail and worse every time the news agency described the portion of the Indian Ocean between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula as “The Arabian Sea.”

“Please, please,” the poor Iranian reporter begged editors at AP in New York on a crackly telephone line. “Don’t call it that; call it the Persian Gulf.”

I’m reminded of all this by a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post (page A15, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009), in which a vaguely-named organization calls on journalists to use the name “East Sea” for the portion of the Pacific Ocean between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese Islands. The ad noted that the newspaper had used the geographical term “Sea of Japan” in a news story on July 5.

I suspect strongly that the Web site is linked to the South Korean government’s effort to change the recognized name of that body of water to East Sea. Some organizations, such as National Geographic, have been convinced to use both names together — publishing maps and gazetteers that read “Sea of Japan (East Sea).” That is somewhat appeasing to South Korean tastes.

South Korea has been lobbying for years that the body of water be officially renamed worldwide. The case hearkens back to Japan’s occupation of Korea in the 20th Century. South Korea (and North Korea is generally in agreement, in this case) argues that Korea was controlled by a colonial Japanese government when it accepted the world-recognized designation of Sea of Japan in 1929.

Japan argues that “Sea of Japan” predates the Korean occupation and denies influencing its international use.

The dispute has been considered without resolution by a commission on standardizing names at the United Nations.

What is remarkable to me is the fervor with which South Korea has dedicated efforts — and a considerable amount of money — to change the name. Diplomats, university professors and statesmen have been sent around the world to visit governments, news media and others simply to get them to change the name in their official usage.

I don’t have any advice for the Washington Post, my former employer, where I was once the editor in charge of Asian news, and where I once received an earnest and convincing delegation of South Koreans who wanted to discuss the issue. Days later, I also received a visit from the Japanese embassy, where officials apparently had gotten wind of the lobbying effort.

But wouldn’t there would be a lack of incentive to make a quick decision on changing the name? The latest advertisement must have added well-needed revenue to Washington Post coffers somewhere in the range of $40,000-60,000. Using the “wrong name” more than once could add up to real money.

P.S. I even suspect that a South Korean tracking program spotted the use of “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan” in this blog item. While it sounds like good money, WorldDesk doesn’t run advertising, doesn’t accept funding from government organizations and seeks to be balanced at all times. We’ll go with both names, right down the middle, for free.

– Peter Eisner

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1 comment


Great story Mr Shint. Oh, because me any my freinds call you Mr Shint, we think you should change your name to Peter Shint. Or at a minimum include both names. Ok Mr Shint.

Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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