Todd Crowell is author of the forthcoming The Dictionary of the Asian Language.
The Virginia state legislature in the U.S. ventured into unfamiliar foreign policy waters the other day when it passed a law that requires school text book publishers add six little words in reference to the body of water usually known as the Sea of Japan: “also known as the East Sea”.
That would seem to be a rather small bore triumph of South Korean sentiments, even though it is treated as a major victory in Seoul and a defeat for Japan, which unwisely went out of its way to try to forestall the legislation, even hinting that it might jeopardize Japanese investment in the state.
Still, it was a victory of sorts for South Korea, which, for the past twenty years, has been laboring mightily to persuade the rest of the world to use its designation for the body of water separating itself from Japan, or if not that at least to acknowledge that there are alternative designations.
Until recently the efforts have not been met with much success. In 2012 South Korea officially asked the International Hydrographic Organization to use East Sea for the Sea of Japan. It turned the request down after Washington officially advised the organization against it.
The U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which guides the government on nomenclature issues, also uses Sea of Japan alone, while China and Russia, two countries contiguous to the waters, use variations of the words Sea of Japan in their own languages.
The number of “also known as…” constructions are proliferating in Asia clogging up the prose and imposing a kind of political correctness on international publications when writing about Asian issues as journalists and other writers struggle to appear even-handed.
It is, of course, common place now to refer to the uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, that are bringing China and Japan closer to war as Senkaku, also known as Daioyu. Never mind that the English language publications in China, such as South China Morning Post don’t bother with such even-handedness referring to them simply as the Diaoyu.
Similarly, the disputed islands in the Sea of Japan are usually described as Dokdo, also known as Takeshima, though there is, in this case, a third neutral term. The United States officially calls them the Lioncourt Rocks (named after the French vessel that “discovered” them.)
How far down this road must one take? A half a dozen countries border on the body of water commonly known in English as the South China Sea, each with its own geographic names. So must we, in total neutrality of course, write South China Sea – also known as Nan Hai (Chinese), Bien Dong (Vietnamese) or the West Philippine Sea?
Manila was perfectly content to refer to the waters as the South Sea, until ownership of several atolls became objects of dispute. Beginning in 2012 it decided to call the waters the West Philippine Sea to reinforce its claims to these atolls and islands. The ocean to the east of the Philippines is still known simply as the Philippine Sea.
Many publications now refer to the Southeast Asian country as Myanmar, also known as Burma. Both words approximate what Burmese call their country, but Myanmar has an unsavory pedigree. In 1989 the military junta known as the State Law and Order Council (SLORC) decreed that Burma was a colonial- era name and that henceforth it would like to be called Myanmar.
Coming only a year after bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in Rangoon (also known as Yangon), there were grounds to question the legitimacy of the name change. The SLORC has pasted into history and Myanmar has gained acceptance almost everywhere except significantly the U.S. State Department and among some dissident publications based in Thailand.
A similar situation arose in India when the Shiv Sena, an unsavory, right-wing nationalist party, won control of Maharashita State and declared the name of its capital, Bombay, was also a colonial relic and that henceforth it would be known as Mumbai. The Shiv Sena are long out of power but Mumbai has out-grown its origins and gained international acceptance - along with Chennia (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta).
One should probably be grateful that other Asian countries haven’t yet joined the nationalist nomenclature bandwagon to dump “colonial era” names. The Thais don’t insist that we call their capital city Krungthep instead of Bangkok. Beijing doesn’t insist that we exchange historic name China for the tongue twister Zhonggou, and Tokyo doesn’t insist we use Nippon – also known as Japan.