School textbooks have long been a symbolic bone of contention between Seoul and Tokyo, as they argue over how history should record Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea. Now, the dispute has dragged in the classrooms of Virginia in the US.
The lower house of the Virginia state legislature will on Thursday vote on a bill that would require new school textbooks to use both of the terms “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan”, when referring to the body of water between Japan and Korea.
If passed, the law would be a rare victory on the matter for the South Korean government, which has struggled for more than two decades to gain international acceptance of its preferred name for the sea.
Seoul argues that Tokyo won foreign recognition of the name “Sea of Japan” only during its imperial expansion, and views the term as emblematic of Korea’s humiliation by its neighbour.
But the International Hydographic Association has repeatedly rejected Seoul’s demand that the name “East Sea” be recognised, while even Beijing has refused to adopt the term, in spite of continuing anger in China over its invasion by Japan.
The Virginia bill follows a lobbying campaign by local Korean-Americans, and has been enthusiastically endorsed by the South Korean government, which spent $7,600 on a visit to Seoul by David Marsden, the legislator who sponsored it.
But the move has sparked alarm at the Japanese embassy in Washington, which has paid a local lobbying group $75,000 to push against the bill, according to a document obtained by South Korea’s state news agency, Yonhap.
In a December letter to Terry McAuliffe, Virginia governor, Japanese ambassador Kenichiro Sasae noted important trading links between Japan and Virginia, and warned that these “strong economic ties . . . may be damaged if the bills are to be enacted”, according to the Associated Press.
The dispute over the bill carries additional weight because of a territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan over an island group that lies in the sea. It also comes at a time of exceptionally bad diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Condemning what it sees as an increase in provocative behaviour by Japanese officials, South Korea has blamed the supposedly nationalist sentiments of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe sparked outrage in China and South Korea in December when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are among those commemorated.
The fallout between its two key Asian allies has been a source of consternation in Washington, and US officials have urged Seoul and Tokyo to improve their relations, while refusing to take sides. “I don’t have a position on that bill,” a state department spokeswoman said last month when asked about the Virginia proposal. “We don’t have a position on competing sovereignty claims.”