A Little Korean Government Arm-Twisting of my Blog on the ‘Sea of Japan/East Sea’ Spat – How Unintentionally Flattering Actually

sea of japan


Did anyone else get this email below? Who wouldn’t be persuaded by some PR firm hack with no idea about East Asia giving suggestions she doesn’t understand by robo-email? Yuck. Maybe I’m reading it the wrong way – maybe getting yelled at by the Korean government about nomenclature means someone actually reads my blog. Hah!


“Dear Robert,

I came across your Asian Security Blog and read your post, “Why don’t Korea & Japan Align?”. Because of your interest in current affairs and issues in Asia, our communications firm is reaching out, on behalf of the Korean Consulate General, to inform you about an issue that you and your readers need to know about. 

The Republic of Korea is asking the US government and map publishers to use the name “East Sea” together with the “Sea of Japan” when referring to the body of water located between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago, over which both Japan and Korea have jurisdiction.  This body of water has been called East Sea for over 2,000 years – you can read the historical background here: http://bit.ly/EastSeaMaps

Why is this important and why should this issue matter to your readers?

* When dealing with matters of diplomacy, a name reflects how a country is viewed.

* Support for Korea’s position is gaining momentum among many internationally respected cartographers and the media. National Geographic, Rand McNally, The Economist, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde have all begun using both names concurrently.

* Other evidence of growing support for Korea’s position includes a vox populi petition to the White House with more than 100,000 signatures, and a vote at an international organization’s recent conference that denied Japan’s proposal to use only the Sea of Japan name.

Will you consider posting about this on your blog? Links to videos can be found at the bottom of this message, plus you can find additional information here: http://bit.ly/EastSea Please feel free to use any of this information found here in your postings.

Thanks, Robert! If you have any questions or need additional information, please feel free to contact me.


Parter International/Tuvel Communications Team
on behalf of Korean Consulate General in New York
Video: The Name, “East Sea” – http://bit.ly/Lu5puJ
Video: The World Map is Changing: Korea’s East Sea – http://bit.ly/JJSYIF


I find this ridiculous. Has anyone noticed how non-descriptive ‘East Sea’ is? At least the ‘Sea of Japan’ actually provides some basic geographic information (ie, a sea near Japan), while the ‘East Sea’ could be any sea east of anything else. To demand that the world use that term insists that the rest of the planet view bodies of water from a Korean perspective, which is a preposterous request. The name itself implies absolutely nothing. This is the US Government’s position also.

Should Israel demand the Arabian Sea be changed? Should Pakistan lobby the world to change the name of the Indian Ocean?  I have no idea if I have used the name ‘East Sea’ or not on my blog, but using an internationally accepted name is standard. I find this faux-controversy a fatiguing Koreanism, just like when Koreans insist on telling foreigners how old they are by their ‘Korean age.’ The ensuing confusion does little but gratify Korean insistence on uniqueness. Please, can we just stick to international standards and avoid self-flattering particularisms no one else cares about? Finally, it’s worth noting that there’s also the ‘Korea Strait.’ Should that be re-named the South Strait or something?Because this whole conversation will inevitably provoke a Japanese move on that name in response. Can’t we just drop this?

44 thoughts on “A Little Korean Government Arm-Twisting of my Blog on the ‘Sea of Japan/East Sea’ Spat – How Unintentionally Flattering Actually

  1. As a German, I find “East Sea” even more ridiculous. The German term for the Baltic Sea is “Ostsee”, which as anybody with a little bit of language understanding can see easily translates literally to “East Sea”.

    When anybody comes to Korea, I tell them “Koreans call the Japanese Sea “East Sea” and a tiny irrelevant rock in it is called “Dokdo” and not “Takeshima”. If somebody starts talking about this, don’t try to counterargue but change the topic”.

    Currently, I am not sure whether I find this whole issue amusing or annoying.


  2. Do we find the “North Sea” ridiculous? Why does the Atlantic have a North Sea, but not the Pacific? The North Sea is north of what? North of Europe, which is obviously more important than Korea and not at all an arbitrary designation, is it?
    The point being that East Sea isn’t any more arbitrary than North Sea, and yet we seem to have no problem with North Sea, which strikes me as a double standard.
    Not that I really care if it’s the Sea of Japan or the East Sea, they should call it the Filthy Sea to be more accurate, but even that would be controversial because so many seas are filthy. (“But OUR sea is the filthiest so WE get to call OUR sea the Filthy Sea!!! Your sea has no authentic claim to being as filthy as ours!”)
    So I’m not into the real nationalist Korean thing, but this western assumption that Koreans are merely nationalist and thus we can ignore some very legitimate evidence they produce isn’t right either. They have legit claims but it’s only now that they have the world stage to make them. That doesn’t make their claims any less real.

    There is a good book about historic Korean maps, Korea: A Cartographic History, and the last chapter has what I think is the most balanced approach to the Dokdo and East Sea issue I’ve ever read. The author (an American, not a Korean) is of the opinion is that the Koreans are actually correct about the East Sea being the original name for the body of water and he provides excellent evidence to back it up. It’s worth a read.


    • Thank you for the vigorous response. But you do see the cartographic informational loss in moving from a descriptive name – the Sea of Japan indicates roughly where this sea is – to a nondescript name like the East Sea? To that point, I would agree that the North Sea tells us little. Were it in a similar naming controversy, I imagine I would not care. But that is a point well-taken.

      Next, the name ‘Sea of Japan’ is well-established internationally, so the re-naming campaign, while it plays to Korean ideological satisfactions, imposes fatiguing informational costs on everyone else, akin to endless confusion among foreigners re: the ‘Korean birthday’ system. Sometime, ones gets along to go along.

      Next, you must also see the Korean Strait will eventually come up for the same treatment if Korea persists. I already know Japanese who tell me this.

      Finally, I am happy to respond to you, but not if you imply racism again. I don’t endorse Europe as the world’s cartographic center, nor am I throwing around western assumptions. I’ve been writing in this area for a long time at pretty professional level, and it is simply undeniable that the ROKG badgering of an unknown blogger like me is a nationalist project.


      • I didn’t imply racism at all. You’re being hyper-sensitive. Your post was condescending, but I don’t call that racism. Racism is what you accuse someone of when you’re losing an argument and you need to use social forces to coerce their silence.
        We weren’t arguing and I wasn’t trying to silence you, just bring up a point that we foreigners snort at the East Sea yet have no problem with othe arbitrary geographic designators. That’s all.

        As for my response being “vigorous”, the Internet doesn’t allow you to see me smile while typing and a semicolon and parenthesis seemed too obvious. Had I been truly vigorous of the excited Internet sort I would have shouted at you with all caps: DOKDO IS KOREA!!! (Which i thought about doing under a different name just for fun.) Instead, I included the bit about the filthy sea, which should have been the sign that I’m not taking myself too seriously here.

        Interesting tidbit. I was eating dinner with some dude from a society dedicated to Dokdo research. I asked him why Koreans don’t try to lay claim to Tsushima; after all, it’s much closer and actually has usable land. He said there is a group out there who makes the claim, but they are rivals to the Dokdo group. The Dokdo group is afraid of the more radical group spoiling their claim to Dokdo by overplaying Korea’s hand. I have to meet this other group. Have you run into any of these guys trying to claim Tsushima? I hope there’s a Korean group that wants to lay claim to Kyushu. THAT would make my day.




    • this kind of yelling around is really what makes the Dokdo/East Sea case so silly that nobody will seriously consider changing it.

      After all, foreigners in Korea want continue being amused about it.


      • Exactly. Tone down the rhetoric and they’ll get more of what they’re looking for. Also, it would be a good idea not to send PR memos to people who create some perceived slight re: Dokdo.


    • Look at the way I signed the post, and just consider the ridiculous language…”east of most eastern places”…”round eye running dog lackies”… This post is very clearly a joke. Just look how I signed my name: “NOT Matt on Yeongdo (I swear I’m someone else”. From top to bottom, this post is a farce.
      I can’t believe people really think I’m mad. You all need a vacation.


  4. The most curious thing about the mofat request and the (government) Northeast Asia History Foundation website they link to is that they are apparently not asking for a complete name change, but only to have “East Sea” included in brackets below Sea of Japan, which really makes no sense.

    Whilst the East Sea claim does seem to have the support of older maps it is obvious that Japan could never accept the change, if for no other reason (and politics aside) than that the body of water is to their freakin’ WEST and Japan has a significantly larger population than both Koreas put together spread along a much great extent of it.

    The best option surely would be to rename it entirely, something like Sea of Love.


  5. In a related story France has begun demanding that the rest of the world refer to the English Channel as “La Manche,” or alternatively as “The Sleeve”.

    (Just kidding).


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  6. I am sorry that the tone of these comments has become so heated, though I realize that some people are agitated and others simply poking fun. But may I say gently and in good humor, Robert, that perhaps you need a vacation–you’ve been a little cranky regarding Korea lately.

    I agree that much of this fooferall is related to Korean insecurities over its place in the world and reflects a nationalistic and egocentric agenda. Talking to a foreigner and giving your age in Korean years knowing that he or she won’t understand you is very perverse, like me deliberately using regional Canadian slang with you. Did you write your pogey form on the chesterfield?

    Having said that, the e-mail you received has the tone of a request and not a demand, and it asks that you append the local usage, not replace it. It’s possible that the French use a different word for the English Channel, and all over the world states use words for their cities, features, and bordering bodies of water which make no sense to outsiders. Why should Canada get to call themselves a “big house”? Who gets to say the “Pacific Ocean” is so peaceful? Where does Norway get off saying they’re north of anything? Many South Americans don’t like the U.S. calling their country “America.” I have no trouble, even if I question the reasons or find it petty, with Koreans insisting on having a local usage recognized–though I agree that to insist everyone else use it exclusively is a different matter.


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  8. In related (and old news) news, Civil War era Soviets called the Baltic the British Sea (actually, not quite sea, both Russian and German have Meer/Mor as a intermediate thing between Sea and Ocean).


  9. I see how heated this conversation got. It turned into more of a debate into where the issue involves pestering ‘koreanism’. I’m a korean and I’m not trying to reflect any sort of korean nationalist type of opinion. But, Japan says dokdo was originally theirs, calling it Takeshima, or Bamboo Island. Obviously this wasn’t true according to cartographic evidence from Europe showing east asian geography. Having said that, koreans can claim its right to tsushima because it was actually historically korean, only graually occupied by increasing number of japanese pirates that koreans called ‘wae-gu’. So I just want to say inferiority complex that we have with japan and china around us might make the petition for a name change very nationalist. But just as the borders of african states were arbitrarily drawn by europeans, who gave the east sea a name change to sea of japan and made it internationally accepted over time?


  10. Well the sea of Japan really isn’t that descriptive either. It isn’t Japan’s sea either. Maybe naming the sea after a geographical feature rather than a political entity would help. That ensures neutrality and becomes descriptive.


    • What Koreans don’t seem to appreciate is that, for the most part, Westerners assume and generally understand Sea of Japan to be, precisely, named after the geographical feature of the Japanese archipelago and not Japan the state. Knowing that seas, outside of peripheral nautical zones, are international, no one thinks that the sea in question belongs to Japan because of the name; many Westerners would probably presume it was named thus by some early European “explorer” or cartographer. Historically, it seems it was, in fact, the Japanese that pushed to establish the international name, but this remains irksome – albeit understandably – only to Koreans.


  11. Hey Robert,
    I’m sorry that it seemed that I was accusing you of racism. I really didn’t intend that at all. It struck me later because I realized that you probably do get accused of racism in the classroom–not because you are–but because it’s easier for students to accuse you of racism than to truly think about what you’ve taught and to develop a reasonable response to what you’ve said.
    As I said above, racism is one of those ad hominems people who lose arguments use in order to bring about social forces (and possibly government power) to silence the winner of the argument.


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  14. So the new year has come and Virginia has decided to adopt “Tonhe=East Sea” and NY and NJ are now debating about it. I am a Japanese who reside in US. I don’t think it’s a big deal if the small body of water(compare to Atlantic or Pacific) call Tonhe or Sea of Japan. But what worries me is that what comes next. Takeshima/Dokko is one thing. Then I can see they are trying to call Japan is theirs. After all, to Korean, Jesus was Korean, Chinese Kanji characters were invented by Koreans and there are many historical figures were supposedly Korean.

    When you learn the history, you will find many inconvenient truth in each country and each government. We are all human and we all make mistakes. But this type of behavior by Korean people only hold us bank in 20’s century. (now i can hear that they are bashing Japan about Comfort Women- please let me know if you would like to know what I found “inconvenient truth” of comfort women)


    • I personally find your post immature with no consideration for the concept of national identity and historical value for people who are concerned. East sea is not the east sea in a sense that you are talking about. The name East Sea is a name that the international community used for hundreds of years. It has significant cultural values to Koreans. There are historical writings and ancient myths that are related to the East Sea. It is the embodiment of Korean history and national identity.

      Names serve more functions than to describe something. There are much more to a name. If according to your argument, a name should be dismissed because of its obscurity of meaning, you are suggesting that there are no values to all names in the world that are potentially ambiguous. There are so many New York streets in the US outside of New York state and so many people with name John. Each denotes a distinct, unique entity. Please consider historical perspectives before criticizing a country’s decades of efforts in a matter that is crucial to its people.


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  17. Even if “East Sea” was the name originally, it’s no longer the case. Time for S.K. to concede defeat on this one. What’s next, naming Iran back to Persia?


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  19. I just had an entertaining conversation w/ my young (naive?) schoolteacher-neighbor. I said something about the Sea of Japan and she “corrected” me by saying it’s the East Sea. I replied, “What does Vietnam have to do with jellyfish off Japan?”. mijoo213 should remember that Vietnam’s East Sea is just as old and just as “international” as Korea’s.

    The defining weakness of Korea’s East Sea argument is it’s blatant anti-Japanese racism. Notice there is no outcry over Korea’s West Sea (as Arriang News calls it) being called the Yellow Sea.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve a digital copy of the Rand McNally 1883 map showing the East Sea is far to the south of Korea – though that has since been renamed the East China Sea.

    BTW – For those who actually believe the Sea of Japan was called the East Sea be Europeans 400 hundred years ago, the correct answer is it was call the Oriental Sea. And no, mijoo213, Oriental didn’t mean “East” in this context. Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Siberians and others were “Orientals” and more than one map of the medieval through 19thC refer to Oriental Seas of those peoples shores. Statically, the Sea of Japan was not special in this regard.


  20. ?? It’s absurd to translate a unique name. It’s ‘Donghae’ not really ‘East sea.’ Don’t you get it? It’s like you are trying to translate someone’s name. Are you a scholar seriously?

    So, is your name Robert descriptive and meaningful? Hahaha


  21. Impressive. Frankly, I wonder how come so many Americans with lower than average intelligence come to this far-far-away country and overestimate themselves here enjoying discussion? 😉

    I didn’t say you shouldn’t. Just curiosity.


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