A two-word tweak to Virginia’s public school textbooks has sparked a fiery debate in the General Assembly and reignited a longstanding international feud. A Senate bill would require Virginia’s texts to note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the “East Sea.” The move has angered Japan, pitting its high-powered lobbyists against the local Korean-American community. Kojo explores the power of a name, and finds out what’s next in this sensitive dispute.


  • James Nolan Reporter, Richmond Times-Dispatch
  • TK Park Blogger, Ask a Korean!
  • Peter Kim President, Voice of Korean Americans
  • Masato Otaka Minister of Public Affairs, Embassy of Japan


  • 13:30:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a simple question without an easy answer. What's in a name? In the Virginia General Assembly this week, legislators are getting a first-hand lesson on how complicated that question can be. A Senate bill that calls for Virginia textbooks to use two names for an Asian Sea rather than one name has sparked one of the most heated debates in the legislature this year. The sea is nestled between Japan and the Korean Peninsula but naming rights over it have been a source of contention between the countries for decades.

  • 13:31:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDINow local activists from the burgeoning Korean American community are bringing this international dispute to Virginia's doorstep. And lawmakers have found themselves in the middle of an international incident. So what's at stake in this textbook tussle and how has this intensely global debate come so local? Joining us by phone from Richmond to explain is James Nolan. He's a reporter at the Richmond Times Dispatch. James, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:43

    MR. JAMES NOLANMy pleasure, Kojo.

  • 13:31:44

    NNAMDIJim, inserting two words into Virginia's textbooks seems like a relatively minor issue for Virginia legislators to tackle. But in the past few weeks, high-powered lobbyists and even Japan's ambassador have gotten involved in this debate. Can you lay out the dispute for us and tell us why it has the Asian community up in arms?

  • 13:32:03

    NOLANWell, sure. And I think what it really revolves around is a clash between local politics and international politics. The local politics are dictated by a predominant Korean American presence in northern Virginia, the Annandale area in particular, that the local senators and delegates who come to Richmond every year are keenly aware of. And they vote. They're very well organized and they express their desire to have this change be made.

  • 13:32:41

    NOLANNow of course the Sea of Japan is the body of water between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, and has been named that for decades. But for many in the Korean American community it is a painful reminder of Japanese occupation through 1945, through the end of the war. So what we have is a local dispute -- a local issue important to Korean Americans in northern Virginia and an international issue that is being faced by Virginia from a political standpoint.

  • 13:33:19

    NOLANJapan invests $1 billion in Virginia's industry and economy. And the international component is the Japanese have sent their ambassador to Richmond to try and preserve the name of the sea because it is important to the Japanese. Not that there's a predominant Japanese population in Virginia, but because internationally this is an important issue. And they've decided to take a diplomatic and economic route to combat the grassroots Korean American play here in Richmond.

  • 13:33:58

    NNAMDIWell, just how important this is to Japan, joining us now by phone is Masato Otaka. He is minister of public affairs for the Japanese embassy. Mr. Minister, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:34:10

    MR. MASATO OTAKAOh, my pleasure and honor to be on this program.

  • 13:34:13

    NNAMDIWe have read that the Japanese ambassador Mr. Sassay (sp?) visited Governor Terry McAuliffe in Richmond and that Japanese companies here have emphasized that they are opposed to renaming this sea in Virginia's textbooks. Can you explain why and why this issue is important for Japan?

  • 13:34:31

    OTAKAWell, this is important for Japan. I think maybe I should be mentioning the fact that it's an established fact that the sea is called Sea of Japan. It's actually established in the United Nations, international hydrographic organizations and also by many other countries around the world as well. So it's the only sole official name of the sea recognized as we know. And I think I should also mention that by the early 19th century, at that time Japan was actually under the isolationism. Our country didn't have much interaction with the rest of the world.

  • 13:35:18

    OTAKAAnd at that time Sea of Japan was already prevalent in the world. The name was always prevalent. And, as you can see, under isolationism there was no way that we could influence any -- have an influence on the other countries how this sea should be called. But still it was called Sea of Japan at that time. And I -- personally, as a parent, I feel a bit uncomfortable about this issue being discussed in relation to educational subject. I, as a parent would want something correct, something that is factually established to be taught to my children.

  • 13:35:55

    NNAMDIWould you object to your children being thought that Koreans think differently about this name and that they see it as related to colonialism and that they would like it to be called the East Sea? Do you think that it would be appropriate or not for children to be taught that?

  • 13:36:13

    OTAKAWell, I would say I would not want to comment on what is being discussed in Virginia right now.

  • 13:36:20


  • 13:36:20

    OTAKAI only make this comment as a parent. But as a parent I would want not only one side to be considered but, you know, everything considered at the same time as well. And I want -- I would -- as an individual parent I would want something that is internationally and widely accepted to be taught to my child.

  • 13:36:41

    NNAMDIAnd that is what officially the government of Japan feels should be the only name of it. Masato Otaka is minister...

  • 13:36:47

    OTAKA...United Nations as well, yes.

  • 13:36:49

    NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:36:51

    OTAKAThank you. Thank you. My pleasure and honor as I mentioned. Thank you.

  • 13:36:53

    NNAMDIMasato Otaka is minister of public affairs for the Japanese embassy. Joining us in studio is Peter -- is TK Park. He is author of the blog "Ask a Korean!" TK Park, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:37:06

    MR. TK PARKThanks for having me.

  • 13:37:08

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Richmond, Va. is Peter Kim who is president of Voice of Korean Americans. Peter Kim, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:37:17

    MR. PETER KIMHey, thanks for inviting.

  • 13:37:18

    NNAMDIPeter, you have collected hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of having both names for this sea included in any future textbooks. Tell me a little about the history that this naming dispute represents and why you think that Mr. Masato Otaka is not necessarily correct.

  • 13:37:36

    KIMYeah, well, you know, I consider myself as a 1.5 generation of Korean Americans because I finished junior high in Korea and then came over to Richmond, Va. to study high school and college here. And I didn't realize the fact that we are teaching our children Sea of Japan only in school until two years ago. I had my own son who's 12 years old. At the time, he was a fifth grader. And I asked the question, hey, Chris, do you know the sea between Korea and Japan? He said, yeah, Daddy. What's the name of it? Sea of Japan. So I said, no, that's not how I learn, you know, entire Korean people and China's people call it East Sea. He says, no, Daddy, that's how I learned in school. It's in the textbook.

  • 13:38:25

    KIMSo I checked and I thought that was not fair. I think our children have a right to learn the fact that there is a dispute between Korea and Japan. You know, I'm not taking any one name. I'm asking for concurrent usage. You know, I'm not trying to change the name. Say I recognize and respect the Sea of Japan, but at the same time our children need to know that in an entire Korean people as well as most of Chinese people call it East Sea. That's all I'm trying to do.

  • 13:39:03

    NNAMDILike to hear what our listeners think about this. Give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. How do textbooks really shape our perception of world affairs? Should textbooks and maps reflect both sides of a geographic dispute if the argument has gone on for centuries, 800-433-8850? Where do you come down on this issue? Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. TK Park, this is one of those issues that reminds us that even as Virginia becomes increasingly global, all politics, as James Nolan said earlier, are local.

  • 13:39:41

    NNAMDIAs a blogger who has your ears to the ground in the Korean American community, I'm interested in what this change would mean for Koreans living in this country.

  • 13:39:50

    PARKI think it would mean a great deal. And let me first, you know, make one point.

  • 13:39:55


  • 13:39:56

    PARKAnd the common question that I would receive from mainstream American folks would be that, oh why do local politics have to be involved in this type of global issue? Aren't we just causing trouble? Aren't Korean Americans just causing trouble? And I what I would say to that is actually it's an American tradition for immigrants to express their views on World History and try to educate those around them about their particular views. So, for example, in the New York City, in Washington Square Park, there's a very large statue of Giuseppe Garibaldis donated by Italian Americans living in New York.

  • 13:40:38

    PARKIn Jersey City, N.J. there's actually a huge and rather graphic statue of a solider being stabbed in the back with a bayonet. And that statue is to commemorate Katyn Massacre in Poland. And that's also donated by the prominent Polish American community within Jersey City. So here I think we had the issue pretty clear, it is a painful reminder of colonialism and it would mean a great deal for Korean Americans in this area, to have their children and the children who study with them, to learn that this actually name is disputed.

  • 13:41:18

    NNAMDIJim Nolan, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said before he was elected that he would support the measure to put both names in textbooks, but reports in recent days indicate that he might be changing his tune or his mind. How powerful have Japan efforts been in persuading the legislator and Governor McAuliffe to see history Japan's way?

  • 13:41:38

    NOLANWell, certainly that's very true, Kojo. And I think when you're campaigning for office the goal -- and it's easy to make promises. And when you get down to the business of occupying office and governing, I think sometimes you realize that actually governing is a little bit more complex. And I think that's the issue that confronts the governor now. He has, on the one hand, a very credible and important and influential constituency that would like to see a change that he, at least on the surface, at the time agreed with. And on the other hand, he has received pressure from the Japanese government, which has in polite, but no uncertain terms, reminded him of the strong economic ties that exist between Japan and Virginia.

  • 13:42:36

    NOLANSo what we're coming to understand is that there's going to be a search for a compromise. And that compromise, we're told, could take the form, ultimately, of an amendment to the bill if it survives the House and Senate in the General Assembly here. And makes it to his desk. And that compromise might involve an amendment that would require any change to a textbook, such as that being proposed for the East Sea and the Sea of Japan, to conform with the Virginia Standards of Learning. And I think one of the issues there is that some legislators are saying, look, we don't want to be in a position of every year some group on some other issue coming to us, seeking to change history or the way we tell history.

  • 13:43:34

    NOLANWe need to have a more coordinated organized way of making those changes.

  • 13:43:41

    NNAMDITo uncomplicate this for our listeners, if this compromise does pass, does it mean that if it comes under the regulations of the Virginia Standards of Learning, will be seeing both names or just one name?

  • 13:43:57

    NOLANWell, I think that's -- and ultimately, that's where the decision is going to be made. What it could mean is that it takes the actual authority -- and, frankly, Kojo, the responsibility for siding with one side or the other…

  • 13:44:13

    NNAMDIOut of Governor McAuliffe's…

  • 13:44:13

    NOLAN…and it would remove--exactly.

  • 13:44:15

    NNAMDIOut of Governor McAuliffe's hands.

  • 13:44:17

    NOLANExactly. This is a very politically sensitive issue. No matter how the governor wants to dismiss it as not as important.

  • 13:44:24

    NNAMDIIf it's taken out of his hands and it's being decided by the Standards of Learning principles, who or what institution makes that decision?

  • 13:44:34

    NOLANWell, it's my understanding -- not being an expert in education law, but it's my understanding that this would come under the authority of the State Board of Education.

  • 13:44:44


  • 13:44:44

    NOLANPerhaps the Department of Education. But what it would effectively do is it would probably, A, delay the implementation of what the legislation seeks to do somewhat. And it would provide a political buffer, both for the people who support the change and for the pressure that clearly this administration is receiving from the Japanese government against the change. And that is the crux of the political issue. Most legislators we talked to down here don't have a position in objection to the name change. Clearly, what has happened though, is the economic realities that have been brought into sharper perspective by the Japanese diplomacy to Richmond, have made some people rethink how wise or how fruitful it would be for them to respond to a strong and fervent grassroots political effort when compared to what amounts to a diplomatic overture from the group opposite.

  • 13:46:01

    NNAMDIJames Nolan, is a reporter at the Richmond Times Dispatch. Jim, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:46:05

    NOLANMy pleasure.

  • 13:46:06

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Peter Kim, president of Voice of Korean Americans, and TK Park, author of the "Ask a Korean" blog. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. What naming and labeling fights have held particular importance for you? Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:48:25

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the textbook dispute in Virginia with Peter Kim, president of Voice of Korean Americans. He joins us by phone from Richmond. And TK Park joins in our studio. He is the author of "Ask a Korean" blog. Peter, I looked at our map of Asia hanging on the wall in the office and it has both labels for the sea. So I'm curious about how the East Sea or the Sea of Japan is referred to in government publications and books outside of Virginia.

  • 13:48:57

    KIMWell, you know, I think a bunch of citizens from everywhere in the United States have been appealing this issue to many different ways. And I noticed recently a number of publishers, like McGraw-Hill, they completely updated so they have both Sea of Japan and East Sea. And, you know, the problems -- I want to point out that the Virginia Standard of Learning, 2008 edition, already indicate, directs teachers to teach both sea names in the classroom.

  • 13:49:37


  • 13:49:38

    KIMThe problem is the one phrase -- two phrase out of hundreds of pages of Virginia Standard of Learning cannot control 100 or so small to medium-sized publishers. So big publishing companies like McGraw-Hill, you know, National Geography Society, they already have updated. Actually, National Geography Society strongly recommends -- they don't want to take any one side. They said to be fair and right they recommend every publisher to use both sea names.

  • 13:50:13

    NNAMDIBut getting back to the 2008 Virginia Standards of Learning for one second. You seem to be suggesting that there it suggests using both names?

  • 13:50:23

    NOLANYes. They already in there. And this legislature is -- all this legislature is trying to do is to regulate the publishers to require whenever they supply any textbooks, maps to Virginia public schools, they have to have…

  • 13:50:39

    NNAMDITo do that, but I guess…

  • 13:50:41

    KIM…both sea names. That's it.

  • 13:50:42

    NNAMDIBut as I guess, as Jim Nolan said, if the State Board of Education revisits the Standards of Learning, we'll have to see how that turns out. But, TK Park, the Asian population in our region has grown more than 60 percent over the past decade. Koreans make up a healthy chunk of that. In Howard County alone about 30 percent of the Asian population is Korean. Are these burgeoning, growing communities feeling more empowered to take on these local issues, even if they might seem minor, that important to the greater population?

  • 13:51:10

    PARKYes, I believe so. Especially, people underestimate the size of the Korean American community in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area. If you take the DMV Metro area, this is actually the third largest Korean American population center in the United States. Bigger than other cities that you might associate, like San Francisco, bigger than Seattle, bigger than Chicago, bigger than Atlanta. Only after L.A. and New York, then it's DMV area. So it's natural for Korean Americans who have settled here for a long time to take interest in their local government and ensure that their children are exposed to the historical views that they would like to expose them to.

  • 13:51:52

    NNAMDIA lot of people want to weigh in on this. We will start with Marlene, in Silver Spring, Md. Marlene, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:00

    MARLENEGood afternoon, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 13:52:02

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 13:52:03

    MARLENEThere are two points I'd like to make about this. The first is that it appears to me that continuing to insist that the body of water only be called the Sea of Japan is another form of colonialism extended. And the second point that I'd like to make is that our children are watching us. And if we, as adults, cannot come together and give a full history, and the full history includes the fact that this body of water has another name -- it seems to me that we're providing a poor example for our children, in terms of how adults come to resolve to their conflicts.

  • 13:52:46

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We move on to Cynthia, in Bowie, Md. Cynthia, your turn.

  • 13:52:54

    CYNTHIAYes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. You know, I think the thing that is interesting about this debate is that as a black American, so many of our history books are definitely either one sided or they choose to basically take our history and misconstrue information and leave out a large part of it. So I think that this example that we're seeing is something that you're going see in the future, as far as how people might handle how children are educated. We definitely need to speak the truth about all history, not just because a person funds a certain candidate, in the case of Japan, who spends a lot of money here in the United States, as does Korea.

  • 13:53:41

    CYNTHIAIt's an issue that should be addressed all across the board with all culture. And money shouldn't have a lot to do with it. I am very familiar with Japanese and Korean history. And I do understand that much of what Japan did, when it comes to history, is borrow a lot from China and Korea. So I can understand how they would be upset about that because of the simple fact that there's a lot of information that's definitely not being told. But I have a healthy respect for both cultures.

  • 13:54:15


  • 13:54:16

    CYNTHIAAnd I think that that's something that we need to really talk about. And I think we're going to see in the future that this is going to be an issue that's a little bit larger than just what's going on here.

  • 13:54:27

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Peter, I know you have a day job as a businessman in Chantilly, but why did you decide to take on this issue and really push it forward, even if you've got the government of Japan lined up against you?

  • 13:54:40

    KIMYeah, well, we never expected people referring this activity to local politics. We are not politicians. We are fathers and mothers. We felt like our children have a right to learn the names. And our grand heritage and culture ought to be taught in school. I thought that was fair. This is a multicultural community. You've got to respect everybody else's culture and heritage. And certainly we have right to ask that, you know, right. But somehow we thought it was local people -- we don't even have a single full-time person working on this as a Voice of Korean American employee.

  • 13:55:28

    KIMIt's all part time basis, volunteer basis. And we go to our delegate members and senators and say, hey, this is not right. You know, we're not trying to get rid of a name, Sea of Japan. We're going to keep that. We're going to keep that and put East Sea in the parenthesis. You know, that's all we're asking. We never thought it was going to be a political issue. And we never expected Japan embassy was going to hire professional lobbyists to stop this. And we are, you know, shocked. We are very shocked that this is happening. I don't know why they want to make an international issue. And this is a local issue, domestic, educational issue.

  • 13:56:07

    KIMAnd we, as citizens, have a right to ask our politicians to correct, put a name there, should be respecting the East Sea. And somehow, you know, the Japanese government steps in and make it all of a sudden an international issue, a diplomatic issue. No, it's not. This is our education issue, local, domestic, educational issue that we're trying to get accomplished right now.

  • 13:56:33

    NNAMDITK, how about the international issue? The next meeting of the international organization that names water bodies is in 2017. Do you think efforts like yours and others might help to persuade them that this sea should formally have two names?

  • 13:56:47

    PARKI think it will help on some degree, although I'm hardly an expert in the way in which IHO decides names. But I would like to actually highlight a point that Mr. Otaka (sp?) earlier.

  • 13:56:59

    NNAMDIYou have about a minute.

  • 13:56:59

    PARKYeah. And the idea that the name of the sea has been established for decades. It's been established for decades because in 1929 Korea was a colony of Japan. And Korea never basically had a seat at the table where they were deciding all these names. And I think, as a matter of fairness, it would have made sense for Korea to have their input in naming the sea that they live next to for thousands of years. So Koreans certainly see this as a matter of historical justice, so it'll be interesting to see how this contributes to the next meeting.

  • 13:57:38

    NNAMDIPeter Kim is headed to Richmond right now to see how this bill plays out in the House. I know you're hopeful that Governor McAuliffe will eventually sign this change into law. Peter Kim, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.

  • 13:57:51

    KIMThank you, sir. Bye, bye.

  • 13:57:52

    NNAMDITK Park is author of the blog, "Ask a Korean." TK Park, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.

  • 13:57:58

    PARKThank you.

  • 13:57:59

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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