Japanese-Korean dispute over sea name enters the corridors of Virginia legislature

Every General Assembly session produces a few wacky-sounding bills, but rarely do they inspire a foreign government to hire a stable of high-priced lobbyists and dispatch its ambassador to Richmond for a sit-down with the governor.

Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, met with Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and legislative leaders Wednesday to discuss legislation that most people in the Capitol had dismissed as obscure, if not silly. It would require that any new textbooks purchased for Virginia schools note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea.

Three Northern Virginia legislators submitted bills this year on behalf of their Korean American constituents, who consider the Sea of Japan label a painful relic of Japanese occupation.

“I always found it interesting that the people who settled this country, we named some of our rivers after English cities and kings — the James, the York. But we left . . . the Indian names — Chesapeake, Potomac — we left those intact out of respect to the local folks who were there at the time,” said Sen. Dave W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), a sponsor of one of the bills. “So I don’t think it’s a big deal to share a co-designation of a body of water.”

Japan, however, thinks it is a big deal.

The Embassy of Japan has hired four McGuireWoods lobbyists to press their case. The lobbyists have argued in committee meetings that the International Hydrographic Organization — the world authority on charting bodies of water — labels the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula as the Sea of Japan. Ditto for the U.S. government and the White House. The lobbyists have suggested that the General Assembly should not, in essence, craft its own foreign policy on that front.

Japan also sent Sasae to the Capitol on Wednesday for what an embassy spokesman described as a “courtesy call” on the new governor and legislative leaders.

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy also characterized the meeting as a social visit between the new governor and one of Virginia’s largest trading partners.

“I think it was a getting-to-know you meeting,” Coy said. “We do a lot of business with Japan, trading partners and all that.”

Two people familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the purpose of Sasae’s visit was to discuss the bills. Matt Moran, a spokesman for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), confirmed that the ambassador paid a visit to him to discuss the legislation. Moran declined to elaborate.

Marsden said McAuliffe pledged his support for the legislation during last fall’s gubernatorial race, as did his GOP rival, then-
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II.

“I don’t remember the governor making strong public statements about that in the campaign, but he understands the sensitivity to the issue for those involved,” Coy said. “If the legislation passes, he will give it careful consideration at that time.”

The Senate version of the legislation has cleared committee and was due to be voted on in the chamber this week. But day after day in the Senate, Marsden has asked for action to be delayed. He said that was in deference to McAuliffe, who wanted to give Japan the opportunity to make its case to him before the Senate voted.

“I would certainly hope that the Japanese government, for goodness sakes, is not overreacting with this,” Marsden said. “It is very different to have a lobbying group in here representing a foreign country. . . . It feels kind of strange. But, hey, it all contributes to the Virginia economy.”

That bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun). A House version, sponsored by Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), remains in committee.

“The thing is in­cred­ibly important to the Korean American community,” Black said. “The bottom line is, we’re not going to change the name of the sea. We’re simply recognizing in textbooks that while it’s called the Sea of Japan, it’s also called the East Sea by many people.”

Said Hugo: “It’s an interesting little bill. I was surprised the Japanese had a lobbyist for this issue.”

The legislation would not require Virginia to buy new textbooks. But as textbooks are replaced, the state would choose ones that note that there is controversy over the name. It was not entirely clear whether any existing textbook would fit the bill, but legislators think the state is a big enough buyer of textbooks that publishers would respond to its demand.

Yoshiyuki Yamada, a public affairs official at the Embassy of Japan, declined to comment on the legislation, as did the McGuireWoods lobbyists.

Rumors have swirled in the Capitol that Japan would retaliate by pulling out of trade deals or urging Japanese-owned companies to pull out of the state.

Yamada said that is not true.

“The name of the Japan Sea is very important, but [business] is a totally different thing,” he said.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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