RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) — A debate between Japan and South Korea over what to call the body of water that separates their countries is being played out in the Virginia Capitol.
At issue: whether textbooks approved by the state board of education should note that the Sea of Japan is also called the East Sea.
South Koreans want the change and the sizeable Korean American community in Virginia has put pressure on state lawmakers to make sure it's a legislative priority this year. The Japanese do not want the textbook requirements changed.
The two countries are solid American allies in Asia, but ties between them are strained, principally over what South Korea regards as a lack of contrition by Japan for its colonial occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century and its use of Korean sex slaves in World War II. They also have competing claims to a group of small islands in the Sea of Japan.
On Thursday the South Korean ambassador to the U.S., Ahn Ho-young, was in Richmond to meet with lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who had pledged to support a change during last year's gubernatorial campaign.
The visit coincided with a vote 5 to 4 vote in a House of Delegates education panel approving the measure. The Virginia Senate had previously voted in favor of the name change after one of the most heated debates yet this legislative session.
John Kim, president of the Korean-American Society of Greater Richmond, said he was concerned that McAuliffe had waivered in the face of Japanese opposition.
Japan's ambassador, Kenichiro Sasae, sent McAuliffe a letter expressing opposition to the proposed name change in December, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
In the letter, Sasae, who met with McAuliffe and some lawmakers earlier this month, notes that Japan and Virginia are significant trading partners.
"I fear, however, that the positive cooperation and the strong economic ties between Japan and Virginia may be damaged if the bills are to be enacted," Sasae wrote.
Japan has hired a team of lobbyists from McGuireWoods, one of the most prominent lobbying firms in Richmond, to help make its case to lawmakers.
But a spokesman for the governor said McAuliffe's stance remains the same as it was during the campaign.
"If they pass it, he'll sign it," said spokesman Brian Coy.
Yoshiyuki Yamada, deputy director of public affairs at the Embassy of Japan, said he wouldn't comment on any specific lobbying though the issue is "very important" to his country.
"We are making every effort to extend and deepen the understanding among the Virginia people ... about the position of the Japanese government," he said.
Korea's has been more a grassroots effort, helped by the large number of Korean Americans in the state, particularly in Northern Virginia.
At Thursday's committee vote, several dozen Korean American supporters of the proposed name change packed a small committee room and spilled into a hallway. They cheered when the vote total was announced.
Kim said the General Assembly's actions on the proposed changes are being carefully watched by Virginia's Korean community.
"This is our common concern," he said.
The U.S. has a total of nearly 80,000 U.S. forces based in Japan and South Korea. Both allies are prosperous democracies that share U.S.-supported interests in countering the nuclear threat of North Korea and managing China's rise as the region's superpower.