‘L ord, what fools these mortals be.” That was Shakespeare’s Puck venting his exasperation. Unfortunately, things haven’t improved much in humanity’s sandbox in the intervening four centuries.
An excellent example is the dispute concerning the innocent body of water separating Japan and the peninsula occupied by the two Koreas. We know it as the Sea of Japan. It has been labeled that way on world maps pretty consistently since the latter part of the 19th century. But, as everybody in the three countries concerned must know by now, South Korea, duly supported by the North, has mounted a vigorous international campaign to get the name changed to the arguably earlier name “East Sea.”
East Sea: Now there’s a creative idea for enhancing good will in the region, much better than high-level diplomatic exchanges or reciprocal tourism or even the cohosting of the World Cup, that latest wobbly symbol of regional amity. The only wrinkle is that Japan doesn’t quite seem to have grasped the simple, humorous logic of renaming a sea that lies to its west the East Sea. The second it does, however, it will no doubt rush to support the initiative. Relations between Tokyo, Seoul and even Pyongyang will improve out of sight. Or perhaps not.
In truth, it’s surprising that South Korea has made as much headway as it has in persuading the rest of the world that Japan deserves to be stripped of “its” sea and symbolically sundered from the Eurasian continent, so far out there that it’s east of the East Sea, teetering on the world’s rim. Already, such distinguished international publishing and media entities as Encyclopaedia Britannica, the National Geographic Society, Rand McNally’s mapmakers, CNN and Lonely Planet have reportedly agreed to use both names, East Sea and Sea of Japan, on an equal basis. It’s surprising, not because that inconsequential waterway belongs to Japan any more than it belongs to South Korea, but because the campaign to rename it is clearly politically self-defeating. Even if the new name carries the day — or, as appears likely, a different name is settled on — an already tense relationship will be set back considerably.
How can it be otherwise when Japan (which has pointed out that it wasn’t responsible for naming the Sea of Japan in the first place) finds itself being accused in the international arena of perpetuating through this bland little moniker its 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula, not to mention persistent militaristic designs and general arrogance in the region? Such name-calling and exaggeration are playground tactics, not mature diplomacy. Why does anyone find this approach helpful?
Obviously, it is because South Korea has made its case quite forcefully — and because it does, after all, have a case, or at least half a case. The sea in question isn’t “Japan’s,” since it is bordered also by the two Koreas, Russia and even a sliver of China. And given Japan’s history on the Korean Peninsula, Koreans can hardly be blamed too much for objecting to anything that reminds them of it. Maybe it shouldn’t remind them, since the name predates that history, but it does, so the point is moot. But what is not defensible is staking a claim for “East Sea.” That is what turns a halfway reasonable argument into a slap in the face.
In any event, the long-simmering dispute is finally coming to a head. South Korea had hoped, and indeed still hopes, that it will prevail at the November meeting of the 70-nation International Hydrographic Bureau, when members are scheduled to vote on the matter. But things escalated earlier than anticipated last week when the IHO suddenly proposed dropping both names until November, or at least until the two sides could agree to compromise. In the meantime the relevant page of the IHO’s manual “The Limits of Oceans and Seas,” due to be reissued next year, will show the sea as a nameless blank.
Japan is protesting, understandably. South Korea thinks no name is a better option than the hated Sea of Japan. Our own feeling is Puck-like: There are bigger things to worry about, and it would have been better for everyone if the issue had never been raised. Now that it has, however, a solution must be found. It’s likely to be a messy compromise, whereby the two Koreas and probably the rest of the world call the sea one thing and Japan calls it the Sea of Japan, much the way the French call the English Channel “la Manche” (the sleeve).
That’s the direction the political winds are blowing. But here’s a better idea. After rejecting several promising possibilities — Nobody’s Sea, the Sea Between, the South Siberian Sea — we have come up with a name so neutral, so hopeful, that even Japan might accede to it: the Sea of Tranquillity. Or is that just asking for the moon?
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