Sea Change: South Korea, Japan Lobby Lawmakers Over Textbooks

Several states are considering changes to how textbooks reference the Sea of Japan.

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Korean-American organizations are urging states to reconsider how their textbooks reference the body of water between Japan and the Korean Peninsula.

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As more state legislatures consider changing how school textbooks refer to a body of water between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, some say they are following a history of lobbying groups using textbooks to highlight ongoing debates and advance political issues.

The Virginia state legislature on Feb. 6 passed a bill that requires all new textbooks to also refer to the Sea of Japan as the East Sea, and the measure is expected to be signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. Korean-American associations in New York and New Jersey now also are pushing for similar measures, claiming the term “Sea of Japan” was unfairly popularized while Korea was under Japanese occupation.

State legislators in New York – Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky and Assemblyman Edward Braunstein, both Democrats – have introduced legislation that would require the same notation in all new textbooks in the state. Stavisky pressed for similar legislation in 2012, but it was unsuccessful.

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In New Jersey, Assemblymen Joseph Lagana and Gordon Johnson, both Democrats, on Monday introduced a bill that would require the body of water to be called the East Sea for all governmental purposes, although it does not explicitly require the term to be used in school textbooks.

The three states – Virginia, New York and New Jersey – are three of the top four states with the largest Korean-American populations.

“It is often said that history is written by the victors,” Stavisky said in a statement. “In this case, the widely known name for a body of water is a constant reminder for Koreans worldwide of an era of oppression, occupation and violence. Understanding the historical and political implications of this conflict and acknowledging the East Sea as well as the Sea of Japan is an important lesson for New York students as they learn to be conscientious global citizens." 

Some members of Virginia’s legislature voiced concerns about passing such legislation – and whether doing so could open the floodgates for more measures to rename other locations at the behest of certain countries or groups.

Virginia Del. Johnny Joannou, a Democrat, referenced the case in which the Ottoman Turks renamed Constantinople as Istanbul, while Del. Joe Morrissey, a Democrat, questioned whether it was the responsibility of state legislators to rename the English Channel or the Persian Gulf in textbooks used in Virginia’s schools.

But Del. Mark Keam, a co-sponsor of the Virginia bill, says what’s unique about the situation between Japan and Korea is that there is an ongoing dispute about how to refer to the body of water.

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“There’s been a lot of misunderstanding that Virginia is rewriting our textbooks, that we’re meddling in international affairs, that we’re trying to decide what the name of the sea ought to be, and those obviously are not issues that they have any jurisdiction over,” Keam, a Democrat, says. “There may be other bodies of water out there that people have different names for, but I don’t know that they are live disputes happening today where it would help our children to understand that there are disputes going on.”

Additionally, Keam says, information about the dispute between Korea and Japan is already written into Virginia’s Standards of Learning, and therefore should also be reflected in textbooks and materials that are used.

Sam Wineburg, a history professor at Stanford University, says changing how places and events are referenced in history textbooks is nothing new, and textbooks long have been susceptible to the power of lobbying organizations.

“Perhaps that is as it should be, because textbooks are our only public record of how we tell ourselves the story of who we are,” Wineburg says. “If they weren’t subjects of debate, if they weren’t subjects of different groups voicing their opinions, they would be these static, brittle catechisms that you only find in regimes where there is no public debate.”

Aside from renaming places and events, lobbying groups also have pushed to include specific references to movements and cultures.

In 2011, for example, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law making the state the first in the country to include lessons about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history in textbooks. And in 2012, Brown, a Democrat, signed into law a bill to include the religion, history and culture of the Sikh community in history and social studies standards, which largely shape textbooks.

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“Generally, when it reaches the level of bills being proposed not by one state, but by several, it’s an indication that prevailing views have started to change, or at least prevailing views are willing to entertain an alternative interpretation,” Wineburg says. “Groups have used textbooks and American history for political purposes and it is often more about the present than it is about the past.”

Keam says such changes to how historical events and locations are referenced – such as the fact that Istanbul used to be called Constantinople – should be included in curricula and textbooks, to the extent to which there is educational or historical value in teaching students about those disputes.

“Since the two countries are having disputes not only about the name of the water, but also about other issues … our goal as educators and as policymakers is to make sure that when our students are learning about that area, that they don’t think everything is hunky-dory,” Keam says. “We want them to understand that there are some disputes going on. So to the extent that this particular issue … helps generate that conversation, we just want to make sure our textbooks and the materials we use are accurately portraying that there is a dispute going on.”