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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:54 03/09/2007
News Review #343: April 20, 2006

Disputed Islands Stir Tensions between Japan and South Korea

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

Disputed Islands Stir Tensions between Japan and South Korea
CBC News


The article introduced above and reports by other media point to the reason for the tensions being dispute over territorial rights on the islets of Takeshima (apparently called "Dokdo" or "Tokdo" in Korea). Although one of the remote causes of the tension could be attributed to the territorial issue regarding Takshima, which needs careful scrutiny by itself, the immediate cause of the current tension is not the territorial dispute per se, but waters surrounding the islets are to be called.

The closed body of water surrounded by the Asian Continent and the Japanese Archipelago has been called the Sea of Japan for centuries, in fact not by the Japanese but by the "civilized" Western countries since the beginning of 17th century. It has been so recorded on various official and unofficial documents all over the world thence, not because Japan asked for it but in a natural and traditional manner no one ever questioned, even our neighbors living on the Korean peninsula.

Then in 1992, merely a decade or so ago, South Korea - until then expressing no objections to the records including those of the UN calling it the Sea of Japan - suddenly started an propaganda campaign to change the name to either "East Sea" or "Korean Sea" saying that the name "Sea of Japan" was so named by the Japanese in early 20th century as a part of its ambition to expand its territories. (Later, Korea "officially" dropped its proposition of calling it "Korean Sea" to conform to its newly added argument that water bodies should not trace the name of any specific country - see below.)

Japanese people and the government thought initially that the sudden assertion was a part of some sort of political tactic, if not an outright joke, to distract the eyes of the Korean people from some domestic political scandal or the sort. Indeed, it could have been so, until media in remote parts of the world begin to pick it up. How serious were the media in reporting Korea's claims no one knows, but somehow it began to gain momentum. (This may itself be an interesting subject to pursue in terms of understanding interactions between media and society.)

Korea, in recent years, has persistently brought up the idea of changing the name of Sea of Japan at the meetings of United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN). The group, however, made up of geography and oceanography experts from various countries, apparently annoyed but prefer to stay out of political crossfire, has been indeterminate - which has had the effect of fueling Korea's ambitions.

Under the circumstances, the Japanese government, in order to make its reasoning easier to swallow by the experts at UNGEGN, launched a program to investigate the topography and map the sea floor of the Sea of Japan. And this is how the Korean government come to launch a new campaign to claim Takeshima as their territory, likely in the attempt to skew the real and immediate issue by funneling patriotism among its people - for them to say whatever Japan is doing is wrong. This is the cause of the current "tension."

On the issue - if that ever was - of "Naming of the Sea of Japan," Japan's reasoning is follows, which is accessible at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

(1) As a matter of principle, it is not appropriate at this meeting (UNGEGN) to discuss the issue of the naming of any particular geographical feature.
(2) The name "Sea of Japan" is internationally and historically established and has been supported and employed by the United Nations System and International Hydrographic Organization. In addition, 26 specialized agencies and other international institutions have communicated officially that they uphold the same policy as the UN.
(3) The Government of Japan has approached to some map publishers and press editors who once had offered the compromise of the simultaneous use. Almost all have accepted the Japanese position.
(4) The survey conducted by the Government of Japan on the maps possessed by the United States Library of Congress, following the previous surveys in the British Library, the University of Cambridge, and the Bibliotheque de France, again made it clear that the name of Sea of Japan became established by Europeans and Americans between the end of 18th century and the early 19th century.
(5) A dual designation would harm the interests of the international community. The pressing need for a single globally standardized name is underlined, in the wake of rapidly evolving process of globalization.

The argument of Korea, according to the summaries by UNGEGN is essentially that "it is inappropriate to name the sea after a single country, when the sea is shared by more than one country." For that matter, however, Korea has not shown any concern on the "East China Sea" or the "Gulf of Mexico," which indicates the inconsistency of Korea's claims. Besides, the area is located to the "west" of Japan, not east.

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