The government of Japan urged Democrat Terry McAuliffe in late December to oppose an obscure bill in the Virginia legislature about textbooks or risk damaging the economic relationship between the two governments, according to a letter obtained Thursday by The Washington Post.

In the letter to McAuliffe before his gubernatorial inauguration, Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae urged him to oppose a measure that would require future Virginia textbooks that mention the Sea of Japan to note that it is also known as the East Sea — the name preferred by Koreans.

McAuliffe had promised to support the measure during his campaign for governor, but he has been under pressure to reverse his position in recent days. The Japanese government hired four lobbyists to advocate against the bill, and Sasae traveled to Richmond on Wednesday to meet directly with McAuliffe and legislative leaders.

In his letter, Sasae said: “I worry that Japanese affinity towards Virginia could be hampered” if the measure is enacted. He noted the $1 billion in direct investment that Japan has made in Virginia in five years, the 250 Japanese companies with investments in the state and the multimillion-dollar export market in Japan for products from Virginia.

“[I] fear . . . that the positive cooperation and strong economic ties between Japan and Virginia may be damaged,” he wrote.

Despite Japan’s efforts, the measure passed the state Senate on Thursday — with a gallery of cheering Korean Americans looking on. The issue is delicate for people of Korean heritage, who consider the Sea of Japan label a painful relic of Japanese occupation — and whose sizable presence in some Northern Virginia communities brought the issue to the attention of several lawmakers.

McAuliffe signed a letter during the campaign saying he “fully support[s] efforts to use both names” and promising to “ensure that as new texts are purchased or downloaded they reflect this important historical truth by supporting legislation” to that effect.

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said that he did not “remember the governor making strong public statements about that in the campaign, but that he understands the sensitivity to the issue for those involved” and will make a decision should the measure come to his desk.

Yoshiyuki Yamada, a public affairs official at the Embassy of Japan, has said that the bill would not affect the business relationship.

The legislation inspired a heated debate on the Senate floor as the packed gallery — lined with Korean and Japanese reporters — watched in suspense.

“There are citizens here in the commonwealth who feel very passionately about this,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico). But he warned of “a Christmas tree effect” in which lawmakers contend with other international geographical disputes year after year. “We’ll just do this every year,” he said. His proposal would align textbooks with the state’s Standards of Learning, which describe the Japanese-Korean disagreement.

Sen. Richard H. Black (R-
Loudoun) vehemently disagreed, calling McEachin’s suggestion a “poisonous amendment” that “would essentially gut this bill” and dash the hopes of Korean Americans who have pushed for this change for two years.

“We have a great community of Korean Americans in the United States,” he said. “We’re very proud to have them as part of the network, part of the fabric of this great commonwealth.” And the bond goes beyond our borders, the Vietnam veteran declared. “We stand side by side at the 38th parallel in Korea,” he told the Senate. “We have fought in battle together.”

In 1929, when the International Hydrographic Organization began labeling the body of water between Japan and the Korean Peninsula as the Sea of Japan, Korea was under Japanese rule and “had no voice,” Black said.

“So this is an opportunity, ladies and gentlemen, where we can stand for the Korean American community and we can stand shoulder to shoulder,” he said.

McEachin objected to Black’s charges with equal passion. “My father stood in the snow and defended Korea,” he said. “I take no back seat to anyone in my love for Koreans and for the alliance.”

Into the tense debate stepped Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), whose wife is Korean American and who taught English for several years in Japan. He is fond of both countries and said that listing both names in textbooks is an appropriate “recognition that there is a dispute.”

The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service estimates that 82,000 people of Korean origin live in Virginia, more than half of them in Fairfax County. Although the Japanese population is far smaller, the lobbyists enlisted by Tokyo have emphasized that Japan is a major business partner of the state.

In the end, the bill passed by an overwhelming margin. The Korean American advocates looking on, who had been chastened about cheering in the legislature, silently waved their arms and pumped their fists.

The bill must still pass the House of Delegates, but it has bipartisan support there as well.