“As you guys can see on the map, the Korean peninsula here was divided between a Soviet-blacked government in the North and an American-blacked government in the South…” It was another typical day at Episcopal, and I was sitting in my AP US History class, gazing at the map on the screen. Mr. Reynolds was pointing at a map that shows the Korean peninsula, the place where I come from, while explaining the containment policy during the Cold War. I was a bit zoning out at first, but something caught up my attention right away. The map on the screen said the body of water besides the Korean peninsula is the ‘Sea of Japan’, not the ‘East Sea’. It is one of the ongoing geopolitical disputes between Korea and Japan that has been continued since the world wars in the 20th century in the wake of Japanese imperialism. I clearly knew that the map was misrepresenting the name of the hotly disputed region. Soon followed the moment I raised my hand and shouted out loud in the middle of the class, “It’s not the Sea of Japan. It’s the East Sea.”
There is a decades-long history behind the high-stake struggle between the two Asian powers over the names of the body of water located between Korea and Japan. The Korean government has asserted that Koreans have used the name ‘East Sea’ for over two thousand years, even 700 years before Japan was officially adopted as a country name. It is also claimed that the body of water was started to be referred to the ‘Sea of Japan’ since the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early 20th century. Despite of the Korean government’s claim that its name has a greater historical legitimacy than that of Japan, the region has been known internationally as the Sea of Japan since the 17th century with most international bodies, including the United Nations, using the name today. The government and grassroots organizations, aiming for redressing misrepresentation of history, have endeavored to persuade the international community to recognize the name ‘East Sea’ as the official nomenclature of the sea area. The effort did make a change in some places, such as Virginia. In April 2014, the Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation that requires textbooks to include both names by a wide margin. This change was finally made due to the endless effort of Korean Americans in the state to push state legislatures to rename the sea. Yet, official publications produced by a number of international communities are still in need of reform.
I started to wonder how many more times I would encounter such misrepresentation of Korean territory and history and how many of those I could redress. It has only been a few years since the Smithsonian museum started to indicate ‘East Sea’ and ‘Dokdo’ in its map, and prep schools in America still teach Asian history according to the imperialism ideology that rose in the 20th century. I’m sure there still are hundreds of schools that use the wrong map in class, hundreds of museums that misname the sea, and probably hundreds of people in the world who know the Sea of Japan, but not the East Sea. The problem is, not all of those would be accepting like my history teacher who gladly corrected the map after I gave him my opinion. Most of them may be like, “Well, why don’t you go by what everyone else in the world says?” Would I be able to bravely voice out even when surrounded by a hundred of people who have been taught the inaccurate version of history?
I soon realized that it is my responsibility to stand up and correct the sanitized version of history with sufficient historical evidence that backs up my argument. It is not because of the mere fact that I’m Korean. In fact, I’m a person who has dual backgrounds of both Korea and Japan as a quarter-Japanese Korean who grew up in both Tokyo and Seoul, and I definitely understand the stances of both countries. This is a problem that should not be viewed in a simplistic nationalism framework, but rather a larger issue that all of us are supposed to care about with the responsibility to resolve geopolitical disputes that have been deeply rooted in human history. What we have to do is to reach out to spread the truth, listen to others who try to correct the misconception, and try to be aware of disputes that are still ongoing around the world.
After what happened in my history class, two new files of documents were placed on my laptop: articles about the East Sea and geopolitical disputes present in and out of Asia. I came to realize that I should be fully aware of the historical evidence of why the East Sea is a legitimate name of the sea region and of information about a variety of issues regarding territorial conflicts all across the world. Yes, it is not easy at all to resolve the centuries-long conflicts that our predecessors have passed down to later generations. But if every one of us tries to take a step forward and spread the truth, there will be a change.