Sea of Japan Dispute Tops White House Petition Site

The disputed Dokdo Islands are in the Sea of Japan.

The disputed Dokdo Islands are in the Sea of Japan. AP photo

Score one for the White House's petition site We the People when it comes to fostering public debate.

A March 22 petition aimed at removing the name "Sea of Japan" from U.S. textbooks has shot to the number one spot on the petition site, gaining nearly 100,000 online signatures in just more than a month. That makes it one of the most popular petitions posted to the White House site since its September 2011 launch.

The petitioners want the body of water between Japan and mainland Asia to be called the "East Sea." South Koreans and others argue the latter name was more common prior to the 20th century and that the name Sea of Japan only became widely accepted during Japan's colonial domination of Korea, beginning in 1910, and its further expansion during World War II.

Not to be outdone, supporters of the Sea of Japan name launched a counter petition April 13, which has already passed the 25,000-signature threshold for an official White House response.

The counter-protesters argue "the Sea of Japan has always been the Sea of Japan, since the beginning of time" and effectively accuse East Sea supporters of being unduly influenced by the North Korean government which also opposes the Sea of Japan name.

Officials initially touted We the People as a place for citizens to directly engage their government but the site has come under fire for responding to most petitions with pro forma statements of administration policy. Officials have also been slow to answer many petitions that cross the response threshold, letting some fester for six months or longer.

The Sea of Japan dispute, though, highlights one of We the People's better attributes: The site provides a central space where issues that have failed to win traction elsewhere can get a hearing from a curious and engaged -- if somewhat narrow -- audience.

Though it stretches back decades, dispute has never gained significant traction with the broad U.S. public, despite Facebook campaigns and state legislature bills.

A YouTube video on the topic created in 2007 has only been viewed about 23,000 times, less than one-fourth the number of signatures on the month-old We the People petition.

To be clear: The federal government has very little influence over school textbook standards, which typically are decided at a state or school district level. But the point of We the People -- at least as it's understood now -- is clearly more about fostering debate than changing policy.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has stated it will use the name Sea of Japan as it is more commonly recognized and because the board has a policy of using only one name for a body of water to avoid confusion. The State Department has endorsed that position.