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Background on the Name of the East Sea
January, 2000
The Society for East Sea
Seoul National University


In most world maps and atlases used internationally today, Korea's East Sea is indicated as the "Sea of Japan," and therefore an immediate correction is warranted. To this end, it is necessary to review the historical background of the term "East Sea" and how Korea's East Sea has been recognized by neighboring countries and Western nations in the past. This article also explains how the East Sea was unjustifiably turned into the "Sea of Japan" in the 20th century.


  1. Name of "East Sea" in Korean Writings and Ancient Maps

    Historically, Korea has used the term, East Sea, in writings since 59 B.C. Examples can be found in numerous records including the Monument of King Gwanggaeto (A.D.411), the Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms, 1145) and the Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, 1284). Moreover, the still extant Atlas of Eight Provinces in the Sinjeung dongguk yeoji seungnam (A revised edition of the Augmented Survey of the Geography of Korea, 1530) uses the term East Sea. In addition, a 16th century Dongguk jido (Map of Korea) uses the term Dong jeo daehae (Great Sea of the Lower East). A map of Yeongnam (the southeastern region of the peninsula), which was made in the 1740s and a map of Korea, which was officially created in the mid-18th century also used the name, East Sea. Hence there is much evidence that "East Sea" has been used for centuries.

    Reference to the East Sea was also constant in numerous maps created after the 18th century. Many geography textbooks published and used before the annexation of Korea by Japan in the early 20th century made references to the East Sea, Sea of Choson or Sea of Korea. However, by the early 20th century, there were some textbooks which made reference to the "Sea of Japan." Every textbook published after Japan's occupation of Korea in 1910 refers to the East Sea as the "Sea of Japan."


  2. China, Russia, and Japan's Use of "East Sea"

    China has known of the East Sea since the Tang Dynasty; however, Chinsese documents at that time called it just Sea or Great Sea. With the establishment in 698 of the Kingdom of Barhae by Koreans, the Chinese began calling the East Sea the Sea of Barhae. China used the term, East Sea, during the Liao (947-1125), Sung (960-1279), Chin (1122- 1234), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (Ch'ing) (1644-1912) Dynasties. At times during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, the Chinese referred to the East Sea as Ching Hai (鯨海) which means Sea of Whales because there were a lot of whales found there. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the Chinese referred to the northeastern area of the East Sea as "East Sea" and the southern area as "South Sea." Around 1884 during the Qing Dynasty, some scholars and bureaucrats occasionally used the term "Sea of Japan" in some documents. However, the Russia-Japan Treaty of 1905 was the first documented use of the term "Sea of Japan" at the government level.

    The Kunyuwanguoditu is a map printed in Beijing in 1602. It was a translation into Chinese of a world map kept by a Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci and it refers to the East Sea as "Sea of Japan." It is the oldest surviving Chinese map known to use the term "Sea of Japan." However, this map does not have much significance because it was a translation of a map made by a foreigner living in China with information obtained from Japan rather than from Korea. This map did not have much impact on subsequent Chinese maps. The next time the term "Sea of Japan" appeared on a Chinese map was about 1875.

    Russian maps of East Asia were all created after 1639 when Russians first arrived in the Pacific coast region. In 1687, Nic Witzen's Noord en Oost Tartarye refers to the East Sea as Oceanus Orientalis. N. Goman's 1725 map uses the term Eastern Ocean, and in a 1734 map, I. Kirilov refers to the East Sea as Vostochnoe, meaning east sea. The Map of Asia printed by the renowned Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1745 also refers to the East Sea as Koreiskoe Mope, or Sea of Korea. Other famous maps printed in Russia from 1745 to 1791 use the term Sea of Korea. Adam Johann von Krusenstern (1770-1846), the Russian who explored the East Sea called it the "Sea of Japan" as did the French explorer, La Perouse (1741-c. 1788), who explored the East Sea in 1787. However, the Russians called the East Sea the Sea of Korea in their last officially published map of 1844. Thereafter, it appears that the Russian Navy and numerous maps followed the European style in making geographical references.



    The term "Sea of Korea" was used in many prestigious maps made in Japan. too. Until 1870, even Japanese maps referred to East Sea as the "Sea of Chosen." All of the following maps refer to the East Sea as the Sea of Chosen: Takahasi Kageyasu's 1810 Sinteibankoku zenzu, Abe Kinin's 1838 Bankoku zenzu, Sugita Gendan's 1850 Chigaku seisozu, Matsuda Rokuzan's 1855 Chikyubankoku zenzu, and the 1870 Meizi kaiteibankoku yochibunzu.



    However, all maps published in Japan thereafter refer to the East Sea as "Sea of Japan." From this, it can be inferred that the Japanese government directed, as a matter of policy, that the name "Sea of Japan" be officially used. Especially, geographical references and names were changed in Matsuda Rokuzan's 1854 map and his Bankoku zenzu of 1871. Hashimoto Chyozuki's 1871 Sinseiyochi zenzu calls the East Sea "Sea of Japan." From this, we can assume that changes were being made at about this time, because the term East Sea was not found in any of the Japanese maps published after 1871. Also, at about this time, references to the "Sea of Japan" began appearing in Chinese maps as well.





  3. "East Sea" in Ancient Western Maps



    The map which was created by Godhino de Eredia of Portugal in 1615 was the first map published in Europe to have called the East Sea as Mar Coria (Sea of Korea). Moreover, the East Sea is called Mare di Corai (Sea of Korea) in Sir Robert Dudley's 1647 Carta Particolare della Isola de Giapone which was made in England. The Map of Asia, which appears in E. Bowen's World Atlas in 1744 and 1752, also refers to the East Sea as the Sea of Korea. The Map of the North Pacific published by J.N. Delise of France in 1750 after his exploration of Northeast Asia also calls the East Sea Mer De Coree. Furthermore, Sea of Korea appears in the first edition of the 1771 Encyclopedia Britannica.



    All of the aforementioned maps prove that the East Sea was widely known as the Sea of Korea during the 17th and 18th centuries.



    However, since the East Sea was referred to as "Sea of Japan" in La Perouse's map of 1797, maps produced thereafter in Europe began to use the term "Sea of Japan" with greater frequency. However, both "Sea of Korea" and "Sea of Japan" co-existed until the first half of the 19th century. It is difficult to find out how "Sea of Japan" replaced Sea of Korea in the later half of the 19th century because a review of all existing ancient maps has not been completed. However, it is believed that such a replacement was a reflection of the easier availability of information about Japan than Korea as Japan's military power had expanded and the recognition of Japan had increased in the international community.





  4. "Sea of Japan" Made Official by International Hydrographic Organization in 1929



    In the early 20th century while Korea was under the colonial rule of Japan, the name East Sea was removed from the maps of world. The eradication of references to the East Sea started when a resolution was adopted at the first Conference of the International Hydrographic Organization to establish the limits of oceans and seas and attach local names for safe navigation. A Japanese delegation attended this conference, but there was no Korean representative. According to the resolution, the East Sea was registered by Japan as "Sea of Japan" in 1923. No other member country raised any objection. Consequently, the 1929 Monaco Conference adopted a resolution to issue Special Publication No.23 entitled The Limits of Oceans and Seas. Thereafter, the mapmakers of the world used the standardized names of places based on this publication and the name East Sea disappeared from world maps. New editions of The Limits of Oceans and Seas were published in 1937, 1952, and 1986 and to date, the East Sea remains as "Sea of Japan" in the document.





  5. Efforts of Koreans to Reclaim East Sea on World Maps



    Historically, the name East Sea has been used for a long time not only in Korea but also in neighboring countries such as China, Russia, and Japan, as well as in Europe. That is, the East Sea was the established name of the sea just as the North Sea is in Europe, rather than being a mere reference about direction. Think, for example, of the Mediterranean Sea, which is surrounded by many countries.



    In documents written since the early 1970s, many citizens and scholars have pointed out the unreasonableness of naming the East Sea the "Sea of Japan." Shortly after joining the United Nations, during the Sixth U.N. Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names in 1992, the Korean Government requested that this inappropriate usage be corrected. At that time, the U.N. advised Korea to consult relevant countries. Of course, Japan opposed any change in the name. Thereafter, at the 1994 New York and 1996 Geneva Meetings of the U.N. Group of Experts on Geographical Names, Korea made public the unreasonableness of using the name "Sea of Japan." In April 1997, Korea requested that "Sea of Japan" be changed to "East Sea" in The Limits of Oceans and Seas at the 15th International Hydrographic Conference held in Monaco. The organization plans to make public its final decision in 2002. The member nations will then state their official positions on the dispute in accordance with the decision.



    In addition, the Korean Government continues to contact renowned map publishers, newspaper and broadcasting companies and magazine publishers throughout the world to request that they use the name East Sea in lieu of "Sea of Japan." Rand McNally, a U.S. map company, has started to use both East Sea and "Sea of Japan" in its most recently published maps.








How to name the Sea Area between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago



October, 2002
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade




  1. Historical Background



    Historically, the sea area between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago, known as the "Sea of Japan", had been referred to by various names. Before the 18th century, no single name had been consistently used to designate this body of water. Various names such as "East Sea," "Sea of Korea," "Sea of Japan" and "Oriental Sea" appeared on old maps and publications.



    A recent study on a large collection of old maps in the British National Library dating back to the 18th century shows that of the 90 maps which gave a name to the sea between Korea and Japan, 72 referred to the sea as "Sea of Korea" or "East Sea".



    It is from the early 18th century to the mid-19th century that "Sea of Korea" and "Sea of Japan" gained wide acceptance and became the names most frequently used by cartographers. It is worth noting that as late as 1870 even many Japanese maps referred to this body of water as the "Sea of Chosen (Choson)" which literally means "Sea of Korea," Choson being the ancient name of Korea.





  2. When and why did the name "Sea of Japan" replace other names?



    It was not until the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) that the term "Sea of Japan" gained wider acceptance. The Russo-Japanese war not only influenced western perceptions of East Asia in Japan's favor, but it also drastically changed the political landscape in East Asia. As a result, Korea was deprived of its political independence in 1905 and five years later fell under Japanese occupation.



    The absence of Korea's diplomatic representation in international affairs during the first half of the 20th century until the end of World War II gave Japan a free hand to promote the term "Sea of Japan" with virtually no opposition. The active promotion by Japan and its enhanced political stature in the world scene at that time led to the gradual replacement of such names as "Sea of Korea," "East Sea" or "Oriental Sea" by the term "Sea of Japan."



    This process culminated in the publication of the first edition of "Limits of Oceans and Seas," which was published by the decision of the 1929 Monaco Conference of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) as special publication No. 23. This book, which has since been used by cartographers all over the world as an authoritative reference for designating maritime features, employed the term "Sea of Japan" for the body of water in question.



    It is important for the international community not to lose sight of the fact that the decision by the editors of the above-mentioned book in favor of the name "Sea of Japan" was taken without due regard to the views of the Korean people during the period when Korea itself disappeared from the world map. This inherently partial decision is hard to justify and should therefore be rectified.





  3. What should be the proper name?



    Lying between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago and extending north toward Russia, the body of water in question is divided into either territorial waters or EEZ's of the encircling countries. The Republic of Korea believes that naming such a sea area after a particular country cannot be justified and that the sea should have a neutral name.



    The name "East Sea", on top of its neutral character, has another advantage in that the adjective "East" perfectly fits with its geographical position, located in the Far Eastern part of Asia. Similar nomenclature for a body of water can be found in the example of the North Sea, which derives its name from its location relative to the European continent.



    Given the reality that the name "Sea of Japan" is widely used at present, however, the Republic of Korea, is of the view that, as an interim measure pending a final agreement between the two countries on a common designation, the two names, "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan," should be used simultaneously in all official documents, maps and atlases in accordance with the general rule of international cartography.



    This view is in line with the recommendations adopted by the following two authoritative international organizations in the area of the standardization of geographical names:



    1) The IHO, in its resolution A. 4. 2, 6 adopted on March 13, 1974, endorsed the principle of simultaneous recognition of different names for a shared geographic feature when the sharing countries do not agree on a common name.



    2) The Third UNCSGN went further to adopt resolution III/20 entitled "Names of Features beyond a Single Sovereignty." The resolution recommended that, "when countries sharing a given geographical feature do not agree on a common name, it should be a general rule of cartography that the name used by each of the countries concerned will be accepted. A policy of accepting only one or some of such names while excluding the rest would be inconsistent as well as inexpedient in practice."



    The simultaneous use of the two names is further justified by the examples of English Channel/La Manche and Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas.





  4. Efforts by the Republic of Korea to restore the proper name



    The Korean people have never accepted the name "Sea of Japan." Since its liberation in 1945, the Republic of Korea has made consistent efforts to restore the appropriate name for the sea area in question.



    It was in the negotiations of the 1965 Fisheries Agreement between the Republic of Korea and Japan that the Republic of Korea formally took up the issue with Japan. For the designation of this body of water, Korea proposed "East Sea," while Japan insisted on the term "Sea of Japan." Failing to agree on a common designation, the two countries agreed on a provisional basis to use their own respective names in the original texts of the Agreement, i.e., "East Sea" in the Korean version and "Sea of Japan" in the Japanese version.



    The Republic of Korea has initiated efforts to convince the international community of the validity of its arguments. For instance, the Republic of Korea brought this issue to the attention of the Member States of the United Nations at the Sixth UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographic Names (UNCSGN) in 1992. Strongly arguing for the name "East Sea," it tried to enlist the support of the international community for this cause. As a result, the Sixth Conference suggested that relevant parties consult with each other to resolve this issue.



    At the Seventh UNCSGN held in New York in January 1998, the Republic of Korea reiterated its position that the term "Sea of Japan" is unjustified, and called for urgent rectification. However, Japan has not changed its stance since the Sixth Conference on the basis that the name "Sea of Japan" is already widely accepted, and that the introduction of other names would cause confusion. The ROK, however, had the support of other representatives, who urged at the Conference that cartographers should be encouraged to use both names, as in the example of "English Channel/La Manche." The UNCSGN President urged that the concerned parties have consultations, taking into account previous resolutions to try to reach an agreement.



    The Republic of Korea followed this suggestion and has consistantly proposed to hold a bilateral consultation with Japanese side to find a mutually acceptable solution, only to have Japan come to table for the first time last December. To our disappointment, however, Japan had no intention to consider any other options except the sole usage of "Sea of Japan".



    Under such circumstances, the continuation of the status quo will only perpetuate the unfair and incorrect practice of the past and, therefore, is not acceptable to the Republic of Korea.



    At the 16th International Hydrographic Conference held in Monaco in April 2002, the Republic of Korea requested that both names "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan" be simultaneously used in 「The Limits of Oceans and Seas」. The request was based on IHO Resolution A.4.2.6., which endorsed the principle of simultaneous recognition of different names of a shared geographical feature when sharing countries do not agree on a common name. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, along with France and Australia, supported the statement of the Republic of Korea.





  5. Recent Progress



    The Republic of Korea's efforts have begun to yield some encouraging results, thanks to the understanding of the international community. Notable examples in this regard are the recent decisions made by Rand McNally, Encyclopedia Britannica and the National Geographic Society to use both names "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan" in their maps and publications.



    Rand McNally, one of the world's largest commercial map-makers, used both names "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan" in 「Premier World Atlas」(1997) and 「Portrait World Atlas」(1998). Encyclopedia Britannica, in 「Political Map of Britannica CD 98」 released in March 1998, followed the same format as Rand McNally.



    In December 1999, the National Geographic Society of the USA, publisher of the「National Geographic」, decided to use both "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan" simultaneously in all its publications. And recently, in January 2001, the NGS began to publish maps using both names of "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan" simultaneously.



    In addition, 「"Humanitarian Response Planning Map" DPRK 1998」, prepared by the US Agency for International Development in December 1997, used "Sea of Japan(East Sea)". Also, 「Democratic People's Republic of Korea Landform and Land Cover」 produced in 1998 by the United Nations Environment Programme starts with "East Sea". A part of 'Japan and Korea' in 「The Cartographic Satellite Atlas of World」, published by WorldSat International Inc. in 1997, used 'TONG-HAE(East Sea)/NIPPON-KAI(Sea of Japan)' as romanization of the endonym. The well-known US geography textbook, 「Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts 2000」(Ninth Edition, published in August 1999) by J.J. de Blij and Peter O. Muller, uses both names "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan" simultaneously.





  6. Conclusion



    Geographical names often have serious implications for the perception of a nation's identity, culture, language and history. Thus, finding a proper name for the body of water between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago is not just a question of geographical designation. It is rather a part of national efforts by the Korean people to redress the unfairness that has resulted from the past.



    In conclusion, the Republic of Korea calls upon the international community to use both names simultaneously (in such a way as "East Sea/Sea of Japan") in any official documents and world atlases as an interim measure pending an agreement on a common designation, which is in accordance with the general rule of international cartography.


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