By Shen Peng Contributor October 28, 2013

Online map providers should carefully label disputed territories to avoid backlash. Meanwhile, nations involved in land battles need to focus more on settling the issues and less on map names.

The Japanese central government recently urged its local governments and national universities to stop using Google maps on their websites due to nonconformity with government policies. This decision, however, was not new to Japanese governmental organizations. Earlier in April, the Environment Ministry and Marine Self-Defense Force faced heavy criticisms due to their preferential treatment of Google Maps over the government-mandated maps.

What provoked the Japanese central government were the names used by Google to identify islands whose sovereignty is in dispute. Those disputed territories include the Takeshima islets (also called Dokdo in South Korea) in the south, Senkaku islands (called Diaoyu in China) in the East China Sea, and the Northern Territories (called the Southern Kurils in Russia) off Hokkaido in the north. Japan is involved in sovereignty disputes over each of these islands, taking the position that each island should be identified with its official Japanese nomenclature – not foreign names. While the Japanese did not explicitly name Google Maps as the target of its prohibition, Google indeed used some foreign names to identify the islands.

Local governments and national universities pay little mind to the prohibition. In fact, some employees of these organizations expressed discontent with the policy. An unidentified representative from one of Japan’s national universities said recently that “[Google Maps] is so convenient that it is too hard to find a replacement.”

The Japanese central government has taken the opportunity to promote its own preferred maps, which are endorsed by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan. These official maps identify the islands as territories of Japan. Nevertheless, whether the public will accept this change is unclear. As indicated by Kyodo News, “Many specific buildings were not marked [in the Geospatial Information Authority maps]”, while Google Maps provide more detailed and up-to-date map service.

Japan is not the first country to have a problem with international map service providers regarding territorial issues. Japan’s rivals in island disputes, namely China and South Korea, also have protested against improper names of disputed territories in the past few years. In November 2012, the Korea Times reported the Korean government was upset that Apple Maps had listed one of its island territories in both Japanese and Korean. The government took for granted that the island belonged to South Korea. Requests from different governments for the modification of island names have placed internet giants like Apple and Google in a dilemma. The use of either name will result in provoking the other government that feels its sovereignty is not being respected.

To solve this problem, map service providers should always remain neutral instead of taking sides, because losing the support of any of these governments may result in the loss of a huge market. One solution may be for Google Maps to identify disputed territories based upon the nation in which the map is being accessed. When a user accesses Google Maps in Japan, for example, the Japanese names of the islands should appear. When Google Maps is used in South Korea, Korean names of the disputed territories should be displayed. In addition, map services operated in regions other than the two or more countries involved in disputes should use all official names to avoid bias.

After all, internet services like Google Maps are not designed to solve territory disputes or demonstrate sovereignty, but to help people in everyday life. Governments should avoid focusing too much on the political debates over symbolic representations like the names used to identify disputed territories on digital maps. Instead, they should sit down and negotiate substantial solutions to real territorial issues.

Shen Peng is a first-year graduate student of Asian Studies at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His concentration is East Asia, with special interests to Sino-Japanese relations. He has received a Bachelor of Arts degree in German Studies from Zhejiang University, China.

Photo courtesy of Future Atlas via Flickr.