RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Two of America’s closest Asian allies played out their historic rivalry in the U.S. state of Virginia on Thursday, with South Korea celebrating victory after state lawmakers approved legislation requiring that the Korean name for the Sea of Japan be included in new school textbooks.
Virginia’s House of Delegates voted 81-15 to approve the two-line bill, which requires “that all text books approved by the Broad of Education ... when referring to the Sea of Japan, shall note that it is also called the East Sea.”
The bill had already been approved by the state Senate. Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has veto power but spoke on behalf of the Korean perspective during his campaign for governor and is widely expected to sign the measure.
It was a significant victory for vocal campaigners among Virginia’s 82,000 Korean-Americans, who greatly outnumber the state’s 19,000 ethnic Japanese and showed up in the hundreds to cheer the vote in the state capital, Richmond.
The vote followed intense lobbying not only by Korean-Americans but the governments of South Korea and Japan more than 7,000 miles away, which have been squabbling for years over the name for the sea, which separates their countries.
Japan’s campaign included warnings that Japanese investment in Virginia could be hurt by a negative outcome, while Japanese officials voiced concern that what they call a “test case” could spark similar campaigns elsewhere.
Peter Y. Kim, a Virginia resident and president of the Voice of Korean Americans, said he hoped what happened in Virginia would spread.
“I hope that other Korean-Americans in other states will try to correct their textbooks,” he said. “It’s not just good for Korean-American children ... it’s good for all Americans.”
It is a source of intense bitterness for Koreans that the name “Sea of Japan” was standardized worldwide while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, after the International Hydrographic Organization, or IHO, published its definitive “Limits of the Oceans and the Seas” in 1929.
Japan argues that “Sea of Japan” is recognized by the United Nations and most big states, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and China. A long Korean campaign for recognition of the “East Sea” has so far failed to gain much traction.
On Tuesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that the “Sea of Japan” was the only internationally established name and said the U.S. government recognized it as the sole official name.
“We must continue to firmly explain the correct way of thinking about the name Sea of Japan and our country’s position on the issue,” he said at a regular news conference in Tokyo.
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo, already frayed, worsened after by a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a shrine to former military leaders that South Korea said showed a lack of contrition for Japan’s imperialist past.
The Monaco-based IHO did not respond to a request for comment before Thursday’s vote, but the National Geographic Society in Washington said it began including “East Sea” in parentheses after the Sea of Japan in its maps in 1999 in response to growing international use of the term.
“In the absence of an international agreement, we feel a need to inform our readers of this toponymic dichotomy,” spokeswoman Kelsey Flora said in a statement on Wednesday.
Virginia Delegate Tim Hugo, a Republican who sponsored the bill in his chamber, said he was surprised by the huge interest in the bill by both Korean- and Japanese-Americans.
“I didn’t realize all the passion would be involved on both sides,” he said.
The Washington Post reported in January that Japan’s ambassador to Washington, Kenichiro Sasae, wrote to McAuliffe late last year urging him to oppose the bill or risk damaging the strong economic relationship between Japan and Virginia.
Sasae noted Japan was the state’s second-largest foreign investor, injecting almost $1 billion in the past five years. He said Japanese companies employed about 13,000 people there.
“I fear ... the positive cooperation and the strong economic ties between Japan and Virginia may be damaged if the bills are to be enacted,” the Post quoted the letter as saying.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported this month that Japan’s embassy agreed to pay the McGuireWoods consulting firm at least $75,000 to lobby on its behalf.
McGuireWoods has confirmed it is representing the Japanese Embassy. The embassy has declined comment.
The main Senate sponsor of the bill, Democrat David Marsden, reported receiving $7,600 last year from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry for a trip to Seoul, according to Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracker of money in Virginia politics.
Writing by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Ian Simpson in Washington and Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Peter Cooney and Steve Orlofsky