Virginia ‘Sea of Japan’ textbook proposal encounters additional opposition

An obscure textbook bill that has drawn fierce opposition from Japan and created a dilemma for Gov. Terry McAuliffe appears to have hit a new snag related to African American history.

The Virginia House and Senate passed bills this year requiring that new public school textbooks note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea, but both are awaiting action by the other chamber.

Korean Americans in Northern Virginia, who consider the “Sea of Japan” designation a painful relic of Japanese occupation, have pushed for the measure. Japan strongly opposes the change, suggesting in a letter from its ambassador that the legislation could threaten business relations with the commonwealth.

McAuliffe, who offered Korean American activists a written promise to back the measure during last year’s campaign, has found himself caught between a vital voting bloc and one of the state’s biggest trading partners.

Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said Sunday that she intends to let the House version die in the committee she leads. Monday is the last day for such legislation to get out of committee before the session’s scheduled conclusion Saturday.

Lucas sees the bill as an attempt to cater to the concerns of Korean Americans and opposes it because she thinks the legislature has not shown a similar sensitivity to African Americans.

“There was a time when we had made some suggestions by way of legislation that there be some information put into the history books about African Americans and other ethnic groups and the answer was always no,” Lucas said. “So my concern is, why aren’t we consistent?”

Her plan to kill the bill will not automatically free McAuliffe (D) from the awkward spot the legislation has put him in, since an identical Senate bill could still advance.from the House and to the governor’s desk.

But Lucas’s objections add a new wrinkle to one of the more peculiar controversies of the 2014 General Assembly session. And it has the potential to thwart the Senate bill if the House, which has delayed a floor vote on the Senate bill for several days, decides to kill it in retaliation for Lucas’s move. But some political observers consider that scenario unlikely since the GOP-dominated House has not seemed inclined to give McAuliffe an easy out on the issue.

“I’m going to work to try to make sure [the House vote] happens,” said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), who co-sponsored the House bill with Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax).

Hugo said at a gathering with Korean activists Saturday that McAuliffe was behind Lucas’s plan to kill the bill. McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said in an e-mail: “[T]his is a strictly legislative issue, the Governor has said clearly and repeatedly that he’ll sign the bill if it passes. Any suggestion to the contrary is baseless.”

Lucas said she opposes the measure because the legislature has not responded to past suggestions that textbooks be changed to include more African American history. She referred to a failed 2003 bill that called for the adoption of textbooks that “reflect the history of minorities in the Commonwealth.”

“It bothers me that we don’t deal evenhandedly or equitably with all ethnic groups,” she said.“If they can tell us one time we ought not be telling the state Board of Education what to put into the history books, we ought not be doing it now.”

While reiterating his promise to sign the legislation if it reaches his desk, McAuliffe and his top aides worked quietly behind the scenes earlier in the session to try to kill the measure, according to four people familiar with the effort. But the administration appeared to drop those efforts a few weeks ago after Korean activists descended on the Capitol.

Lucas said her plan to kill the bill was based on her own concerns, not the administration’s.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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