Do Virginia students really need Terry McAuliffe deciding what to call the “Sea of Japan”?

Virginia’s new Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is learning that campaign promises have consequences. He’s landed the commonwealth in the middle of a longstanding dispute over the Sea of Japan and the Korean Peninsula. In the process, he helped Democrats lose the moral high ground when it comes to education.

McAuliffe, a long-time friend of the Clintons, will be a player in the 2016 presidential election if Hillary decides to run. He could help deliver purple Virginia, but first he has to overcome this self-made controversy.

Last year, McAuliffe ran for governor against Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Libertarian Robert Sarvis. In order to score some votes in the all-important D.C. suburbs, he promised the growing Korean population there that he’d make sure Virginia students learned that the “Sea of Japan” is also known as the “East Sea” in South Korea. (In the Korean community, the name “Sea of Japan” is considered a holdover from Japanese occupation.) True to his word, he backed a bill to require textbooks in Virginia schools to identify it as both.

Democratic lawmakers in New York and New Jersey have introduced similar bills.

Sea of Japan/East Sea, photo credit:  Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Sea of Japan/East Sea, photo credit: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

There’s a messy history behind the name of this particular body of water. I won’t pretend to know enough to declare whether it deserves one name or the other. I’m not an expert. And neither is McAuliffe.

The International Hydrographic Organization, which has considerable say over naming bodies of water, has punted on the question until at least 2017.

Progressives criticize conservatives when they attempt to manipulate schools to ideological ends. When Republicans stack school boards, and demand that the fabricated controversies over evolution and climate change be taught, Democrats rightly call foul.

The Sea of Japan vs. East Sea tug-of-war might be an actual controversy, but not one that politicians should solve by legislatively imposing one view on students. Democrats taking sides are no better than Republicans who politicize education.

Things rarely go well when government concludes that it knows better than educators and researchers what children should learn in school. It is one thing for states to set broad expectations for students. It is something else entirely for them to allow politics to determine the minutia of textbooks. Education becomes indoctrination.

When Japan, one of Virginia’s biggest foreign trade partners, started to complain, the governor quietly tried to kill the bill. The GOP-controlled House of Delegates, still stinging from having lost every statewide race last year, would not let him off the hook. The chamber advanced the bill that had already passed the Senate.

Now McAuliffe must decide whether to deliver on his campaign promise and sign the bill, or break his promise and smooth things over with Japan. Either way, the real losers are Virginia’s students. They might have thought Democrats at least had their backs, but no longer. Pandering for votes trumps a sound education from the right and the left.


Christian Trejbal is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Ore. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. He serves as open government chairman and a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

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  • JJ

    As a Korean-American living in Virginia (who voted more on the women issue than nationalism), I can see how McAuliffe really had no choice in this situation. He could have vetoed and guaranteed loss of votes for the Democrats in the future (Fairfax, where he was able to make up most of his votes against Cuccinelli has a very high Korean-American population), or he could have signed it and angered Japan. However, he did promise to do this… so that’s where his fault comes in; shouldn’t have promised that for votes.

    As for Kor, I’m not entirely sure if that’s true. Some are anti-American because of what happened a few years (decade now?) back, when a couple of American soldiers killed some Korean girls but was acquitted (I think that’s what it was). I believe that was the real deal behind the anti-American movement in Korea. After all, the extreme right Japanese hold anti-Korean parades often, but that doesn’t mean Japan and S Korea aren’t allies. As for name calling, that also goes both ways. As long as US has both South Korea and Japan as allies, and as long as these two countries wrestle with the issues of colonialism, WWII, and nationalistic issues, US will be an unwilling participant, no matter how much US wants to stay out of it. Especially since China and Russia are beginning to test their muscles.

    But in all honesty… I never heard my teacher say the words “Sea of Japan” in history classes anyway. The curriculum never really put that much focus on that area of the region. I think about 30 minutes was all that she spent on the Korean War? Just because they buy some books with some words in them doesn’t really change that much. It’s more symbolic than anything. If you want to actually have these students call it what it is, actually put it in the curriculum.

  • kor

    I’m a Virginian and word I work in Korea. Why is our governor getting involved in this? Oh, there are over 80,000 Koreans (voters) in Virginia. Btw, Korea is extremely anti-American. They have anti-American parades and even tried to pull down the MacArthur statue. Koreans call Americans yankee bastards and we are changing our textbooks to appease them?

  • KI

    It actually is a holdover from the occupation, and it has multiple names from different countries. However, according to people who speak Korean/Chinese it is called the East Sea. It is however, a globally established name from Japan’s time of imperialism when Japan ruled Korea, and a bunch of nasty stuff followed suit (ex: comfort women, Korean mainly, but others too). When it comes to the occupation, neither side relents until a ridiculous amount of pressure is induced. So, changing it to Sea of Japan with East Sea underneath of it is the best way and the best translation. Plus, Buford, that is a generalizing statement. Koreans are not one person. I know many Koreans who actually be considered conservative, as well as the liberal ones.

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  • Ferdiad

    That is how democrats are. Say one thing and do another. Criticize for one thing and then quietly do the same. The difference is that media rarely prints these stories. Thanks Americablog.

  • MacMakoto

    I see you are quite keen on the developments in the IHO. Last time I checked, it was the Koreans disagreeing with the Working Group’s wayforward(Sea of Japan in the main page, while stating reservations in an Annex). In the IHO assembly that followed, it is true that no country backed Japan’s proposal to go forward with issuance of the 4th version while keeping disputed parts as is – mostly in part that other nations didn’t want to get involved or take sides in the argument. However, no vote was made on the validity of the Sea of Japan(which I doubt any sane nation would deny) nor East Sea – I find your statments to be quite misleading.

    http://www.iho.int/mtg_docs/com_wg/S-23WG/S-23WG2/Proposals/S-23_Proposals.htm

  • Buford

    Actually, the most mind-blowing aspect of this story is the suggestion that Koreans in Virginia would pick their governor based upon what name he used when referring to a body of water on the other side of the planet.

  • Indigo

    Whew! Has he also taken a position on Palestine while he’s busy sorting semantics and, oh-by-the-way, he’ll need new maps now that Croatia is back in Russia . . . the mind boggles!

  • silas1898

    West Australian Ocean?

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    On the one hand, it is annoying and disappointing to see a Democratic Governor pander so blatantly…but then again, we’re talking Terry McAuliffe, who built his entire career in politics out of pandering, sycophancy, and advising Dem candidates to do the same.

    On the other hand, perhaps there’s value in school students learning that geographic names aren’t cast in stone, and how a given assertion of a place name can have political, cultural, and sometimes even religious ramifications.

  • Silver_Witch

    Excellent idea…..

  • Silver_Witch

    Well I am sure that Virginia has no other problems to deal with than what to call a Sea on the opposite side of the world. You know like healthcare, jobs, woman’s rights, gay rights, music in schools, HEY about some good schools period. Yeah let’s totally focus on this issue so that we can be as big a dick as republicans can be. And he is going to “help” Clinton, I think not.

  • skippy johnson

    Seems that the poster is trying to create a false equivalency here. There is nothing in the “classic” ideology of democrats or republicans regarding the naming of international bodies of water. However, when republican-controlled states interfere with textbooks/curricula to promote creationism as science they are clearly promoting their ideological beliefs at the expense of accepted science. If we are in the business of teaching students about international conflicts– over political boundaries, treaties, human rights . . . or the naming of bodies of water– then I would think that a good start is to demonstrate to them that a body of water can have two different names (depending on what country you are from).

  • Scott E. Conlan PhD

    I’m from Ohio, a suburb of Pennsylvania. I’ve always wondered…what came first, Lake Erie or Erie, PA? Perhaps the venerable lake might be renamed “Eau Canada”? It even has it’s own theme song!

  • http://buddybest.tripod.com/index.html BuddyNovinski

    This controversy reminds me of the conflict over that channel between France and Britain. The French call it “la manche” (the sleeve) while English speakers call it “The English Channel”

  • emjayay

    When I want to get objective unbiased information about any topic that is a big deal to Japan, I aways just ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. And no, of course I would never expect them to allow comments on their video (the one that sounds like it’s from 1970) on YouTube.

  • cole3244

    although mcauliffe has overreached to compare this act to those of the conservatives when they try to change sound teachings to match their view of science and other sound education is imo comparing misdemeanors to felonies, one is trivial and one is critical so lets not overreact and make a mountain out of a mole hill.

  • http://www.bloomsburyreview.com Webster

    How about “The Pond of Godzilla?”

  • perljammer

    Tempest, meet Teapot. Next up: should the Indian Ocean actually be known as the East African Ocean?

  • Samit Basu

    You speak pretty good English for a Japanese.

  • Zorba

    Seems to me that you could just as easily call it the Sea of Russia as the Sea of Japan. Or the Sea of Korea. All three countries border it. (Pardon me, “four,” since North and South Korea are separate countries.)
    How about Sea of RuJaKo? Sea of JaRuNKoSKo?

  • Samit Basu

    The blog poster appears to be late on the news, because McAuliffe already promised to sign the bill. http://www.nbc29.com/story/24895369/gov-mcauliffe-to-sign-east-sea-bill

    The days of “Sea of Japan” are numbered anyhow, because the IHO map has been stuck in its 1951 revision because no one but Japan supports keeping the “Sea of Japan” name. IHO actually tried to delete the “Sea of Japan” from the current map and leave the sea unnamed as a possible solution to the naming problem, but was cancelled at the last minute due to an intense Japanese lobbying. At the same time, the 1953 edition of the IHO map cannot be revised because of the Japanese obstructionism. In 2012, the Japanese proposal of keeping the current naming received
    exactly one vote at IHO, from Japan of course.

  • MOMinCA

    Korean activists’ claim that “Sea of Japan” is a holdover from Japanese Occupation is unfounded. Recently I watched a youtube video uploaded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, [“Sea of Japan” – globally established name] (youtube.com/watch?v=itXDBgYWNMk). Based on the evidences presented in this video, I must conclude that the Korean activists who claim that the use of the name “Sea of Japan” started in the 1920s are either ignorant or deceitful. The Korean claim is based on some cherry-picked old maps. Perhaps the Koreans are assuming that Americans are too lazy to examine the validity of their claim and therefore Americans would believe anything told by Koreans.

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