Islands called Tokto in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan are seen in the Sea of Japan, which South Korea calls the East Sea. Photo: Reuters
Richmond, Virginia: Every General Assembly session in this state produces a few whacky sounding bills, but rarely do they inspire a foreign government to hire a stable of high-priced lobbyists and dispatch its ambassador to the Virginia capital for a sit-down with the governor.
Japan's ambassador to the United States, Kenichiro Sasae, met with Governor Terry McAuliffe and legislative leaders on Wednesday in Richmond to discuss legislation that most people in the Virginia Capitol had dismissed as obscure, if not silly. It would require that any new textbooks purchased for Virginia schools note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea.
Three Northern Virginia legislators submitted bills this year on behalf of their Korean American constituents, who consider the Sea of Japan label a painful relic of Japanese occupation.
Korean and Japanese media in the Senate gallery for the upper house vote on the bill. Photo: AP
"I always found it interesting that the people who settled this country, we named some of our rivers after English cities and kings - the James, the York. But we left ... the Indian names - Chesapeake, Potomac - we left those intact out of respect to the local folks who were there at the time," said Senator Dave Marsden, a sponsor of one of the bills. "So I don't think it's a big deal to share a co-designation of a body of water."
Japan, however, thinks it is a big deal.
The Embassy of Japan has hired four lobbyists from US law form McGuire Woods to press their case. The lobbyists have argued in committee meetings that the International Hydrographic Organisation - the world authority on charting bodies of water - labels the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula as the Sea of Japan. Ditto for the US government and the White House. The lobbyists have suggested that the General Assembly should not, in essence, craft its own foreign policy on that front.
Japan also sent Mr Sasae to the Capitol on Wednesday for what an embassy spokesman described as a "courtesy call" on the new governor and legislative leaders.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy also characterised the meeting as a social visit between the new governor and one of Virginia's largest trading partners.
"I think it was a getting-to-know you meeting," Mr Coy said. "We do a lot of business with Japan, trading partners and all that."
Two people familiar with the meeting, who did not want to be identified, said the purpose of Mr Sasae's visit was to discuss the bills.
Matt Moran, a spokesman for House Speaker William Howell confirmed that the ambassador paid a visit to him to discuss the legislation. Mr Moran declined to elaborate.
Mr Marsden said Mr McAuliffe, a Democrat, pledged his support for the legislation during last fall's gubernatorial race, as did his GOP rival, then-attorney-general Ken Cuccinelli.
"I don't remember the governor making strong public statements about that in the campaign, but he understands the sensitivity to the issue for those involved," Mr Coy said. "If the legislation passes, he will give it careful consideration at that time."
The Senate version of the legislation has cleared committee and was due to be voted on in the lower house this week. But day after day in the Senate, Mr Marsden has asked for action to be delayed. He said that was in deference to Mr McAuliffe, who wanted to give Japan the opportunity to make its case to him before the Senate voted.
A public affairs official at the Embassy of Japan, Yoshiyuki Yamada, declined to comment on the legislation, as did the lobbyists.