The Korea Herald


[East Sea (4)] Change of meaning in ‘East Sea’ and ‘Sea of Japan’


Published : June 13, 2010 - 18:06

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Theories shed light on meaning of geographic names

This is the fourth in a series of contributions and interview articles exploring standardization issues of the geographic names -- the “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan.” Various views on the geographic name of the sea body between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago will be presented in the hopes of raising awareness of the controversy. - Ed.

Rainer Dormels is currently a professor of Korean Studies at the University of Vienna. Dormels graduated with a masters of arts in Korean linguistics from Seoul National University and earned his doctorate degree in Korean Studies at the University of Hamburg. Dormels’ research has also received support from the Northeast Asian History Foundation and Seoul National University. - Ed.

1. Semantic change and geographical names

Every word has a variety of meanings that can be added, removed, or altered over time. Every single one of those three types of changes is a semantic change. Also, geographic names can change its meaning. In this case we can theoretically differ between two types:

1. The geographic unity to which the geographic name refers to is changing.

2. The geographic name itself goes through a semantic change in the course of time.

Both of these kinds of semantic changes with geographic names can proceed, admittedly, also parallel and dependent of each other.

In connection with the discussion around the international naming of the sea between Korea and Japan, above all, the names “East Sea,” a literal translation of “Donghae,” or “Sea of Japan” became used from both sides. Both names were attacked in each case by advocates of other names. Thus writes the pro-Japan homepage The Sea of Japan and Koreans: “There was no practice to name a body of water in large scale in East Asia. So every sea was called nebulously a name after its direction … It is dubious that they were considered geographic names. They were common nouns rather than geographic names.”

On the other hand, from the Korean side, the name “Sea of Japan” is brought into connection with Japanese colonialism. However, the grounds given by the Korean side for it are not always understood by neutral observers. Mark Monmonier, geography professor at Syracuse University, in his book “From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Clame, and Inflame” (2006) for example, absolutely expresses understanding for the fact that the Koreans try to eradicate remaining traces of Japanese colonial occupation: “If I were Korean, I’d be resentful too.” However, Monmonier received a letter of a Japanese consul with a pamphlet with historical maps from a time far before the colonialism of Japan which shows the sea between Korea and Japan as “Sea of Japan.” Monmonier was impressed: “These and other precedents support the consul’s argument that the name (Sea of Japan) is unrelated to Japan’s militarist or colonial past.”

Reasons for misunderstandings often originated from the fact that the terms “Donghae” and “Sea of Japan” had different meanings in the course of time. Without considering the semantic changes, an understanding of the problems of the naming of the sea between Korea and Japan is not possible.

2. Semantic Change in one of the Meanings of the Terms “Donghae” in Korea

The term “Donghae” has a long tradition in Korea, however, it was not always used with the same meaning. We can notice three steps of semantic change which are not strictly separable of each other regarding the time, but nevertheless can overlap.

These three steps are chosen in a way that the term “Donghae,” after crossing to another step, will differentiate itself in another way from other surrounding seas. Concretely: Because the sea to the east of Korea has been called “Donghae” for a long time, I have chosen as a criterion for the demarcation of the three steps the names of the sea areas which lie to the west and to the south of Korea.

1. Step: “Donghae” as the Eastern Sea in view of the sino-centric theory of the Four Seas which surround the “continent of the middle” (China). The Korean Peninsula was part of this continent. Here “Donghae” stands in contrast to three other seas which surround the central continent. (Therefore in the strict sense, the sea area to the west and to the south of the Korean Peninsula is also a part of “Donghae”).

In China, Korea and Japan, seas in ancient times did not have proper names. One just used the terms “Sea (海)” or “Great Sea (大海).” Great influence on the naming of the seas had the theory of “Four Seas.” It displays China as the empire in the middle of the world which is surrounded by four seas. This theory displays the seas after their directions as an East Sea (東海), South Sea (南海), West Sea (西海) and North Sea (北海). This Chinese world view is found in hand drawings till the 17th century. Real and idealistic views interlock here. China lies in the center of an almost square continent. An example is the map Sihai Huayi Zongtu (“General map of China and the barbarians of the four seas”) from 1532. 

Sihai Huayi Zongtu (1532) Sihai Huayi Zongtu (1532)

In the east of the central continent one can find the Korean Peninsula (朝鮮). Japan (日本) is shown as an island within the “East Sea.” The term of “Four Seas” became therefore a synonym for the (civilized) world. Thus the remark of Confucius’ disciple Zi Xia “within the four seas all people are brothers” is cited with pleasure in many official ceremonies and laudations all over the world. 

There is evidence that in the beginning, Koreans understood “Donghae” in the same way as the Chinese. Therefore, this means that all surrounding seas of Korea are part of “Donghae.” On the Gwanggaeto stele (414) the name “Donghae” is mentioned. At another place on this stele it is reported about King Yeongnak the Great, that the fame of his warlike heroic deeds was known up to the borders of the “Four Seas.” This means that probably in this case “Donghae” must be seen as part of the theory of “Four Seas” and therefore it means nothing else than the waters in the east of the central continent.

2. Step: “Donghae” as the sea to the east of the Korean Peninsula as a contrast to the other two seas that surround Korea: The “Seohae” (West Sea) to the west of the Korean Peninsula and the “Namhae” (South Sea) to the south of the Korean Peninsula.
From: Watanabe/Yaji/Takizawa (2008) From: Watanabe/Yaji/Takizawa (2008)

Step 2 is actually an adaptation of Step 1, but it is a smaller scale limited to Korea. This way of designating seas has also been adopted by Japan. There are some Korean maps from the 18th century that designate the waters surrounding Korea as “Donghae (East Sea),” “Namhae (South Sea)” and “Seohae (West Sea).” Also, North Korea names these seas in the same way as “East Sea of Korea,” “South Sea of Korea” and “West Sea of Korea.”

3. Step: “Donghae” as a proper name for the central sea between Korea and Japan in contrast to other names for seas worldwide.

If one was still able to argue with steps 1 and 2, that the name “Donghae” is no “proper” sea name, this does not apply for the third step anymore. Here the name “Donghae” emancipates itself and differentiates itself from the “Hwanghae (Yellow Sea)” (sea No. 51) to the west of the Korean Peninsula as well as from the “Dong-jungguk-hae (Eastern China Sea)” (sea No. 50). “Donghae” is used in Korea instead of the worldwide-used term “Sea of Japan” and nowadays means in fact the sea No. 52 in the 3rd Edition of “Limits of Seas and Oceans” of the IHO which also encloses parts of the “South Sea” of Korea from step 2 at least mainly.

“Limits of Oceans and Seas,” 3rd Edition (1953) (part) “Limits of Oceans and Seas,” 3rd Edition (1953) (part)

“Donghae” (and respectively “East Sea”) no longer means “the sea to the East of Korea” but “the sea in the East of the Eurasian continent.” Schematically, the change in meaning of “Donghae” can be classified in three steps as follows:

At (the official website of the Republic of Korea) you will find the following statement: “The sea is located to the east of the Eurasian continent; and so it has been called ‘East Sea’ and ‘Oriental Sea’ for 2000 years.”

But you can still find maps in Korea -- as a map published by the Korean Educational Development Institute in 2002 -- that call the sea east of Korea “East Sea (Sea of Japan),” the sea west of Korea “Yellow Sea” and the sea south of Korea “South Sea.” This is a way of naming which still follows step 2 (“South Sea”) mixed up with elements of step 3 (“Yellow Sea”). This careless way of mapping causes confusion, so that it would be helpful to avoid the name “South Sea” in this kind of maps published by official Korean organizations and institutions.

In summary one can say that the term “Donghae” has a long tradition in Korea, its meaning, admittedly, as it is the case with many terms, has changed in the course of time. This semantic change includes also, but not only changes of the geographic unity, which is called “Donghae.” If “Donghae” was still a part of a sino-centric world view in the first step, it developed in the second step to a term which designates one of the seas surrounding the respective country like Korea and Japan. Then in the third step the term “Donghae” becomes a modern sea name which, while one took over the name “Yellow Sea” for the “West Sea” in Korea, the name of the sea area to the east of Korea was deliberately maintained as “East Sea,” although Japanese and other maps preferred the name “Sea of Japan.”

3. The semantic change of the name “Sea of Japan” through Japanese colonialism

Toponyms, which are insulting, are subject to substitute. Monmonier mentions in his earlier cited book among others the following examples:

old: Chinaman Spring -- new: Chinese Spring

old: Polack lake -- new: Corner lake

In 1963 all entries on maps that include the word “Nigger” were substituted by “Negro” through the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. In 1974 “Jap” became in a similar manner “Japanese.” At that time “Negro” was still seen as polite wording, later on it became negative, too. While one sees the problematic of using toponyms like Chinaman Spring, Polack Lake, Niggerhead Point or Squaw Tit Peak at first sight, someone is only able to recognize a country’s problem with a certain name if he knows the historical and geographical circumstances.

As an example from German, we can talk about the abbreviation “Tschechei” for Czech Republic. The official German name is “Tschechische Republik (Czech Republic).” There are two unofficial abbreviations “Tschechien” and “Tschechei” in German. However, there were protests against the term “Tschechei” in the Czech Republic, although it is also used by many Czechs if they speak German. The name “Tschechei” is associated with the Nazi time (1933-1945). However, the fact is that in general the term “Tschechei” has nothing to do with the Nazis. The name first appeared in 1918, clearly before the Nazi takeover of power. However, one may still assume a connection with the Nazi time because the Nazis have used the term “Rest- Tschechei” in their propaganda. The aim of the Nazi dictatorship was the suppression of Czechoslovakia (1938-39). The formerly neutral term “Tschechei” got therefore a negative meaning. Now in addition to its old neutral meaning, the name “Tschechei” had also received a second negative meaning: Many German-speaking people did not stop to use the name “Tschechei” in its neutral meaning. However, the Czech Republic has protested against the use of the name “Tschechei” and this has led to the fact that many have followed the wish of the neighboring state, so that the name “Tschechei” has disappeared from German newspapers and is not used anymore. Instead most people use the term “Tschechien” and those who do not like it just use “Tschechische Republik.”

So what does the term “Sea of Japan” mean? When Europeans gave the name “Sea of Japan,” it had the neutral meaning of a sea which lies beside Japan.

At the 10th International Seminar on the Naming of Seas in Paris in 2004 Kim Shin states in the first edition of “Limits of Oceans and Seas” of the IHO (1928) among 26 seas the “Sea of Japan” was the only one that was named after one single state. “According to the ‘Limits of Oceans and Seas’ it what indicated that in giving the name to a sea lying between two states, they follow the principle of giving the name of a specific country. Instead it is preferred to use a name related to a continent, or to use a third name. Alternatively, both names may be recorded together.”

Kim speaks here of a “sea lying between two states,” however, the problem is that the Japanese and those who have not recognized Korea as an independent state have seen this agenda completely differently. The “Sea of Japan” was not seen as a sea between two states, but as a sea between two parts of Japan, as a sea which lies between the Japanese islands and the Japanese province Chosen (Korea).

As a result of Japanese colonialism and expansionism the name “Sea of Japan” underwent a semantic change. After 1910 the “Sea of Japan” not only had the meaning “sea which borders Japan,” but also the “sea between two parts of Japan, the inland sea of Japan.” In this second meaning, the use of the name “Sea of Japan” means in fact that the peninsula to the west of the “Sea of Japan,” namely Korea, is part of Japan. By the fact that Japan has transformed the Korean East Sea into an inland sea of Japan the name “Sea of Japan” became a symbol for Japanese imperialism and is therefore intolerable for Koreans.

So, in the case of the name “Sea of Japan” it is important that this term has received a new meaning because of the colonization of Korea by Japan, in addition, namely an inland sea of Japan. Schematically, the change in meaning of “Sea of Japan” can be classified in two steps as follows:

Therefore, if Korea begins to be against the sole use of the name “Sea of Japan,” the reason should not be resentful feelings for Japan. It should not be a matter of wanting to show up Japan on account of its past. Not the fact that the name “Japan” is part of a sea name is the problem. Korea and Japan have stepped up more and more to each other over the past few years. Japanese youngsters see Korean TV series, Korean youngsters hear J-pop.

However, as a result of progressing globalization and worldwide sensitivity on inappropriate and discriminating names, the wish of the Korean people to prevent the sole use of the name “Sea of Japan” becomes bigger and bigger. Just as the use of the word “Tschechei” reminds Czechs of the use of this word by the Nazis, the same happens to Koreans with the use of the term “Sea of Japan” as it reminds them of the “Japanese Inland Sea,” wittingly or unwittingly. If one considers the semantic change of the name “Sea of Japan,” don’t we have to understand, why Koreans associate this name directly with colonialism?

4. Increased sensitivity on terms -- a global trend

Not only have the meanings of the geographic terms changed in the course of time, so to has the sensitivity of the people towards them. The name "East Sea (Donghae)" has a long tradition in Korea and is a part of a cultural heritage that shows specific Korean features, but also crosses national borders.

The conflict between Korea and Japan concerning an adequate naming of the sea between both nations is difficult to solve, because one can not expect, on the one hand, that the Koreans further accept the term “Sea of Japan” as the only valid one -- on the other hand, it is unrealistic to expect that Japan would support a change of the existing name. Finally, in case of the sea between Korea and Japan, the ones who are responsible for the naming of the seas worldwide are required to find a suitable compromise that takes into consideration the feelings of both nations.