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The East Sea


The East Sea is the body of waters located east of the Korean peninsula, northwest of Japan, and south of the Maritime Province of Russia. It has also been called Donghae, the Sea of Joseon, and the Sea of Japan. After the International Hydrographic Organization published ‘Limits of Oceans and Seas’ S-23 in 1929, the name ‘Sea of Japan’ has been used by the international community. This issue is another case of Japan’s claim becoming standardized by the international community during the time of Japan’s forced occupation of Korea.


The Korean government has emphasized the necessity for adopting the name ‘East Sea’ in the international community such as the 6th UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names (1992), a plenary session of the UN Economic and Social Council (1993), and the 17th UN Group of Experts on Geographical Names Conference (1994). Now, Korea argues for the use of both ‘East Sea’ (in usage for at least 2000 years) and ‘Sea of Japan.’ In addition, it requests the corresponding translation of ‘East Sea’ in each language instead of transliterating ‘Donghae,’ out of respect for the emotional resonance the name has for Koreans.

The United States’ and United Kingdom’s Board on Geographical Naming (BGN) follow the policy that the geographic name most commonly used is accepted as standard practice. Currently, however, the argument for the use of a plurality of geographic names in respect for each person’s sentiments towards them is steadily gaining ground.

In a 2009 survey conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Affairs of 944 maps from 87 countries (592 geography books, 142 loose leaf maps, 169 textbooks, 41 student atlases), the ‘East Sea’ label appears in parallel or in singular usage. The proportion of ‘East Sea’ labels is 28.07%, the ‘Sea of Japan’ singularly used 65.89%, and No label/Other as 6.04%. Most still use the label ‘Sea of Japan.’ As time has passed, however, the proportion of the ‘East Sea’ label has increased as follows: 2000 (2.8%), 2005 (10.9%), and 2007 (23.8%). Given this, the outlook on the use of the ‘East Sea’ does not look dark.

Regarding the above tendency, Japan claims that there is no necessity for other labels because ‘Sea of Japan’ has been in use internationally since before the mid-19th century.

However, this claim is invalid. Before the mid-19th century, ‘Sea of Japan’ referred to the sea east of Japan, i.e. the body of waters in the Pacific Ocean east of Japan. This suggests that the use of ‘Sea of Japan’ was not internationally established despite Japan’s claim.

In Japanese maps such as Yamashita Zonto’s ‘Unclean World of the Earth’(Enfudaizu tsuketari Hiriomiyazu, 1808), Takahashi Kageyasu’s ‘Newly Revised World Map’ (Shintei bankoku zenzu1810), Abe Yoshito’s ‘World Map’ (Bankoku zenzu, 1838), Mitsukuri Shougo’s ‘New World Map’ (Shinsei yochi zenzu, 1844), Shirai Toki’s ‘Newly Revised World Map’ (Shintei bankoku zenzu, 1850), Sugita Gentan’s ‘Geoscience Map’ (Chigaku seisozu, 1850), Kudo Touhei’s ‘Map of Japanese Territory and Coast’ (Enkai y?ky? zensu, 1851), Hashimoto Kyokuransai’s ‘A Segmented Map of the World’ (Bankoku yochi bunzu1855), Okata Shuntosai’s ‘A Rough Map of the World’ (Bankoku yochi ryakuzu, 1858) and ‘The Revised Segmented World Map under the Meiji Reign’ (Meiji kaitei bankoku yochi bunzu 1870), ‘Sea of Japan’ is labeled as the sea to the right of Japan. The one commonality among these maps is that the East Sea is labeled ‘Sea of Joseon.’

On the other hand, maps which label the East Sea as the ‘Sea of Japan’ such as Matteo Ricci’s ‘Great Universal Geographic Map’ are not a few in number.

However, numerous Korean literary sources and maps such as The Memorabilia of Three Kingdoms (Samgukyusa, 1281), The Compendium of the History of Three Kingdoms (Samguksa Jeolyo,1476), and Augmented Geographical Survey of the Eastern Nation (Sinjeung dongguk yeoji seungram,1481), etc., use the term ‘Donghae’ (meaning the East Sea in English) for the East Sea.


In sum, geographic names are formed based on political, historical, or natural characteristics and then adopted for use among nations. That the international community does not officially recognize the name of the sea (i.e. the East Sea) carrying Korean history and sentiment as the sea Korea is sovereign over raises the question whether Korea is completely liberated from the history of Japan’s forced occupation. Therefore, the international recognition of the name ‘the East Sea’, together with the issue of Dokdo, is a task that must be completed in order to establish Korean sovereignty over its national territory and territorial waters.