The School Textbook Change That Has Japan Furious at Virginia

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March 6 2014 3:01 PM

The School Textbook Change That Has Japan Furious at Virginia

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Let's just call this a group of rocks in a body of water.

Photo by Dong-a Ilbo/AFP/GettyImages

The Washington Post reports that an “obscure textbook bill that elicited threats from Japan and drew busloads of Korean activists to the Capitol was headed Wednesday to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature.”

The bill requires all new Virginia textbooks to mention that the Sea of Japan is also known as the “East Sea.” McAuliffe promised to make the change on the campaign trail while attempting to win votes from Northern Virginia’s growing Korean community, who claim that the name was wrongly popularized while Korea was under Japanese occupation. It has predictably irritated Tokyo, with Japan’s ambassador to the U.S. warning that it could harm Japan-Virginia business relations. New York and New Jersey are reportedly considering similar bills.

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I don’t see anything wrong with textbooks mentioning this, but taking statewide action to require it seems unnecessarily provocative. I get Koreans’ frustrations with what they see as Japan’s failure to fully come to terms with its wartime actions—which I would hope the textbooks also discuss—but there’s an ongoing territorial conflict between the two U.S. allies that Washington is, wisely, I think, trying not to get further involved in.

This seems like an area where state government should follow the lead of the State Department, which announced in 2012 that despite a Change.gov petition, it would be sticking with “Sea of Japan” as the official nomenclature. 

Before you blast me in the comments section, I don’t have any stance on which is the better name. But in cases where there’s ambiguity, the best course of action is usually to stick with long-standing practice rather than make a statement by changing it. Referring to the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf just to irk Iran doesn’t seem all that productive either.  

In any case, it seems like a lot of fuss for a very minor change. I would be surprised if Virginia textbooks spent all that much time of the Sea of Japan/East Sea to begin with. The fact that, according to one state representative, “For years, our textbooks said that the slaves were happy,” seems like a bigger cause for concern. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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