The Sea of Japan Naming Dispute

December 17th, 2018

Sea of Japan
Islands of Verkhovsky in Amur Bay, Sea of Japan, in Primorsky region, Russia

The Sea of Japan is a body of water that's bordered by Japan, Korea, and Russia. Its approved international name is in dispute, and the discussion gets very complicated. Countries have strong opinions on the matter and some have suggested that a name change is called for. The argument revolves primarily around how long a certain name has been used for the sea, and who was in power when the name came into use.

The Japanese government contends that the name should be the "Sea of Japan", but South Korea supports calling it the "East Sea," and North Korea insists it should be referred to as the "Korean East Sea." Almost all international maps use the name Sea of Japan exclusively, with a few maps including alternative names parenthetically.

There is an authority the world can look to in this sort of dispute—the International Hydrographic Organization, a group that bears official responsibility for naming bodies of water around the globe. In 2012, the organization determined that the disputed sea should continue to have only one name, "Sea of Japan."

Nevertheless, the countries that border the sea have put forth various arguments in support of their suggested names, with Japan and South Korea being the most active in the argument. Much of the discussion is about when the name Sea of Japan became the common name.

South Korea says that history is on their side because the body of water has long been referred to as the East Sea or Sea of Korea. South Korea contends that the name Sea of Japan only became common once Korea was under Japanese rule. Japan insists that the name Sea of Japan is the most common international name going back to the early 19th century.

After researching the matter using antiquarian maps, no country has come up with a definitive argument as to what the name should be. There are no published maps that refer to the sea using North Korea's suggested names of "Korean East Sea" or "East Sea of Korea." The Ministry of Foreign Affairs for South Korea says the sea has been referred to as Donghae (which translates to East Sea) on Korean maps for over 2,000 years. The government of Japan argues that the name Sea of Japan has been used in maps internationally since the 17th century and was fully established by the early 19th century.

There seems to be no end in sight for this naming controversy. The interested countries have tried arguments based on geography and shot down other countries' opinions based on the ambiguity of their name suggestion. In one instance, Japan rejected two compromise names, "Sea of Peace" and "Sea of Friendship", which were informally suggested by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. Officials in the Japanese government opposed those and all other suggested names, reiterating their stance that there is no reason to change the name of the Sea of Japan.