This to-the-point editorial on the East Sea/Sea of Japan naming issue is one of the better pieces of opinion writing I’ve seen about it. If you aren’t familiar with this issue, about.com offers an interesting view of the controversy, as does this article.
This dispute has been going on for years. Some of the students I taught in Korea corrected me on the name of the body of water between Japan and Korea with no small amount of exasperation. Never mind that outside of Korea, (and in the English language, as the above editorial notes) “Sea of Japan” was the commonly accepted name of the sea.
Part of the problem for Korean speakers of English, though, is that in Korean (somebody please correct me if I am wrong), the name of the sea is “Dong Hae,” which directly translates into English as “East Sea.”
But that was not why my students refused to use “Sea of Japan.” They perceived a slight in the name: Why should the sea be named for Japan when it just as obviously bordered Korea?
In Japanese the sea is called Nihon Kai (日本海); which directly translates into English as “Japan Sea.” It’s not clear to me whether the name is a legacy of Japanese imperialism or a vestige of the era when European and American ships explored these waters. What was clear to me is that the name stuck and Koreans weren’t happy about it. The East Sea was another notch in a long collection of offenses by Japan. The name of a body of water, no matter how entrenched in international cartography, shipping, and even political communications, could be a slight to be recorded, talked about, and stewed over for years.
As it is still.