Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe this week signed into law a bill that will recognize the Sea of Japan as the East Sea in state textbooks, penning a new chapter in the commonwealth’s recent history of wading into sensitive geopolitical debates.
The law requires that, beginning July 1, all textbooks approved by the state Board of Education to note when referring to the Sea of Japan that it is also referred to as the East Sea.
Both Mr. McAuliffe and his Republican opponent in last year’s governor’s race, former Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, made campaign pledges to sign the measure as a nod to Korean Americans, who view the term “Sea of Japan” as a painful reminder of Japanese occupation of the country in the first half of the 20th century.
But the bill ran straight into intense opposition from the Japanese during this year’s legislative session. The Embassy of Japan, which opposed the legislation, retained nine lobbyists from the powerful Richmond firm McGuireWoods.
“It often happens that when you wade into these foreign policy issues, it gets extremely complicated because there are multiple sides,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime tracker of state politics. “[This was] initially portrayed as a fairly easy change in a textbook to make it more accurate in some form, only to find out that the implications [are] well beyond your ordinary constituent-based bill.”
The bill attracted scores of supporters, as well as foreign media, to Capitol Square during the session.
Virginia, home to the capital of the former Confederacy, is well acquainted with controversies around labeling or recognizing historical events. Republican governors in the state have generally recognized April as Confederate History Month, while Democrats have declined. And last month, members of the legislature’s black caucus, as well as Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, Alexandria Democrat, walked out of the chamber in protest when Harry F. Byrd, the longtime senator who supported segregation, was honored.
But the state has also dealt with international intrigue over the past decade or so — well before the controversial East Sea/Sea of Japan issue.
In 2003, the legislature killed a measure that would have recognized the flag of South Vietnam in schools and at state functions. Lawmakers had faced intense pressure not only from the Vietnamese Embassy, but the State Department, which said the measure could damage U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Proponents of the measure had argued that the flag of Vietnam elicits powerful memories of North Vietnamese occupation of the former South Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s.
Several years earlier, in 2000, Virginia adopted a resolution designating April 24 as “Virginia Day of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923” despite pressure from Turkey, which does not recognize the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during the time period as “genocide.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, then a member of the House of Delegates, was the resolution’s chief sponsor.
The U.S., and Virginia, has close ties to Turkey, a NATO ally. From 2010-2012 alone, the American Turkish Friendship Association paid for nearly $60,000 worth of trips to the country for about two dozen members of the state House and Senate of both parties, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The U.N., as well as countries like Great Britain, France and Russia and more than 40 states have recognize the killings as “genocide.”
President Obama made a similar pledge on the campaign trail in 2008 but has not used that language. Last April 24, for example, he labeled the killings “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.”