Friday, February 14, 2014

Sea of Japan in The Garden State: New Jersey legislators try to meddle with international geography

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I get it. Japanese militarism and colonialism were a rather nasty business. While Japan hasn't exactly been much of an imperial power since its defeat in WWII, the Koreans, as well as the Chinese and others, have every right to be angry, even now, not least because the Japanese haven't exactly been terribly apologetic regardings its myriad historical abuses.

But this is just plain stupid:

On Monday, five New Jersey Democrats introduced a bill that would rename the sea between Japan and the Korean peninsula.

Currently, the sea is known as the Sea of Japan. But, according to the Star-Ledger newspaper, the bill would require "the state and all its political subdivisions, 'to the extent practicable'" to refer to the body of water as both the "East Sea" and the "Sea of Japan." Textbooks in New Jersey schools would have to adopt the new names starting in 2016.

The five backers of the bill represent what the Star-Ledger described as a "large and politically active Korean-American community." South Koreans have argued the name "Sea of Japan" is "colonialist" while the Japanese government has said the name is more familiar to the international community.

Again, I get it. I understand why this is, to some, a very sensitive and contentious matter. And as a matter of course I'm not against renaming things. Like, for example, the nickname of the Washington NFL team. But that nickname is a racist slur, whereas the Sea of Japan isn't, and, simply put, "Sea of Japan" is the name that has been adopted internationally for that body of water. What's the point of changing it now? Surely there are other ways to express one's hostility to Japanese colonialism.

But if there is a desire to change the name, then advocates in the U.S. should work through the proper channels to try to make it happen. Just changing the name locally, at the state level, and requiring that children learn the new name in school, is, as I said, stupid. I mean, what if, say, legislators in Texas, where rewriting textbooks according to right-wing ideological propaganda is hardly uncommon, decide they don't like the name "China" and decide that country will henceforth be known -- only in Texas, of course -- as "Commieland"?

I'm not saying the Korean New Jerseyans behind the "Sea of Japan" bill are nearly that stupid, but it's a dangerous thing, I think, to impose one's parochial views on accepted geographic reality, just as it is to impose one's parochial views on history, particularly when, as in this case, a name change wouldn't really change anything at all.

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