If ever there was a tiff in a toddlers’ pool, this is it. In the latest twist in the convoluted dispute between Japan and South Korea over what to call the body of water that separates them, the government announced last week that it would send experts to the U.S. Library of Congress to re-examine antique maps it said South Korea had mischaracterized in its campaign for a name change. Japan argues for keeping the long-held name Sea of Japan, while South Korea — encouraged by the North — calls that name offensive and argues that it is, in any case, predated by both “Sea of Korea” and “East Sea” (in short, anything but the Sea of Japan).
In a week when the world was sobered by real natural and man-made tragedies — lethal typhoons and hurricanes in Japan and the United States, terrorist carnage in a Russian school and a stubborn humanitarian crisis in Sudan — the resurfacing of this artificial problem is an embarrassment to both countries involved. If there is a less urgent diplomatic issue on the planet just now, it doesn’t spring to mind.
Two years ago, we expressed in this space the half-whimsical hope that a resolution might be achieved with the choice of an entirely new, neutral name — not Sea of Japan, Sea of Korea or East Sea (the last a barely disguised nose-thumbing at Japan), but some fourth label with a natural rather than a geographic reference. We recall suggesting Sea of Tranquillity, although Sea of Teacup-Size Storms would be just as apt. Some dreamed that the cohosts of the World Cup might jointly sponsor a competition to find a new name that would soothe the historic sensitivities of both. More realistically, it was hoped that third parties might craft a solution at the meeting of the 70-nation International Hydrographic Organization to be held in November that year.
The meeting was held as scheduled, but to no one’s surprise no resolution ensued. Following pressure from Japan, the issue was not addressed, and the stalemate persisted, with international bodies, foreign governments and most media organizations apparently deciding to observe the status quo until Japan and South Korea could hit upon a mutually agreeable solution themselves. In April of this year, the United Nations informed Japan that it would continue to use the name Sea of Japan in its official documents.
In response to this understandable but unimaginative inaction, the antagonists naturally continued to squabble. South Korea, seeing itself as the aggrieved party, has continued to wage a highly aggressive campaign, with some success (a number of atlases, guidebooks and encyclopedias are using both names). Most recently, the South Korean government undertook an examination of old maps held at the British Library, Cambridge University Library, the Bibliotheque Nationale in France and the U.S. Library of Congress, a project yielding the entirely predictable announcement that most old maps favored versions of the names East Sea or Sea of Korea. Japanese Foreign Ministry officials then visited the European libraries and emerged to claim — surprise! — that Seoul’s findings were inaccurate. There is no doubt that they will discover similar inaccuracies when they visit Washington.
If common sense were not blinded by nationalist ego, both parties would see here what is obvious to everyone else: It doesn’t matter a whit what names were used on old maps. Those names reflected contemporary political and geographic realities and have no bearing on the modern situation. Nearly every spot on the globe has an old name. What matters today is that the names Sea of Japan, Sea of Korea and East Sea are all unacceptable because they are a source of festering ill will between two neighboring countries that have every reason to be amicable. This dispute is in nobody’s interest.
What to do? There is no point in pontificating that both sides should just drop the whole thing, since that would leave the offending moniker Sea of Japan in place. There is no point in saying, either, that Japan should refuse to dignify South Korea’s abrasive campaign with a response, since that would do nothing but ensure the replacement of one troublesome name by another. Wishing that squabbling children would make up is not going to make it happen.
The only solution, really, is for the responsible global body — in this case clearly the International Hydrographic Organization — to take the initiative it failed to take two years ago, exercise some imagination and reframe the dispute, not as a choice among existing names, but as a kind of referendum upon a whole new name. Neither side would like it, but then, neither side much deserves to be accommodated. Besides, in disliking it equally they may discover in their shared unhappiness some tiny seeds of amity.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.