Does Dokdo Even Matter?

His shoulders are wrenched between his knees. He has positioned himself like he’s playing a game of hide and seek and has declared the perfect hiding spot to be that weird cupboard beneath the sink where the Mom keeps all the bleach and compost. His head practically rests at his feet.

He starts to heave and I’m convinced that a rippled wave physically travels from his toes to his tongue. I watch his vomit reach the seal of the Ziploc bag and I turn my head away. Just that one motion, of twisting my neck from left to right, results in another bout of nausea. I recognize the faint but bitter taste of bile in my mouth.

I hear him vomit again. Through my own drool, I actually crack a smile. His gagging is coupled with these exaggerated sounds which carry themselves through the aisles of the boat. With the kind of forced effort you would see from a Liberal Arts graduate at his first call-back audition,  his vomiting easily overpowers that of the last row of middle-aged Koreans in their fluorescent hiking kits. If anyone has yet to notice the five struggling foreigners at the back of the boat, they most certainly do now.

Located right in the middle of the Sea of Japan, there’s a collection of about 37 islets . Two permanent residents live on one of the islands; they’re both Korean (this will be of importance later, so pay attention). A lighthouse and about 40 South Korean police are also stationed there. Apparently, there’s a helicopter landing pad somewhere, too. (This however, this isn’t really of great importance. I just thought it seemed pretty rad.)

In Korean, the island is referred to as Dokdo. In Japanese, Takesheima. It’s not a mistranslation through languages. More dramatically, both Korea and Japan claim ownership over the islets, the seagulls, and the mixture of kimchi- and sushi-stained vomit which inevitably fills the surrounding waters.

This island is the only disputed region (if you can even call it that) which remains between Korea and Japan after World War II. Both countries maintain an “inalterable” claim over the islets. With each country reconsidering the relevancy of documents from as far back as 1837, it’s no doubt a point of territorial rivalry. And consequently, there’s also a strong sense of nationalistic pride.

It’s patriotism so proud that even the most typical of passengers will continue to vomit themselves green, just for 20 minutes on an island with nothing but a small landing dock and a bunch of pescetarian seagulls.

I glance at another friend. She just saw a small Korean boy soil himself. Apparently, the bathroom has been clogged since we departed. An old woman crawls on her hands and knees over me as I lay huddled by the fire extinguisher. The possibility of another stretch of vomit makes my mouth water in the same way it would if I smelt gas at a self-serve station.

With my ear pressed against the worn carpeted floor, I hear the boat’s engine release itself. I watch her wipe some throw-up from her chin. I watch him stuff his bursting bag of barf into the netted pocket of the seat in front of him. Judging from the rush of vomit-crusted boots which excitedly step over me, we’ve arrived.

Swaying off the boat, Koreans opt for every available photograph. With the harshness of the waters (both politically and meteorologically), only 60% of boats ever successfully dock at Dokdo. The others attempt to make their way to the island, circle around its choppy coast, and disappointingly return to the neighbouring Korean island of Ulleungdo. Apparently, this is one group’s fifth attempt to set foot onto Dokdo.

A bunch of cops eye our arrival and people start to get Christmas-morning giddy. It is as if these people have experienced a bout of retrograde amnesia and cannot recall the fact that they have just spent the last two hours in a simultaneous panic of expelling the contents of their stomachs and shitting themselves outside of only occupied bathroom stall. These passengers actually consider themselves lucky.

Relatively speaking, South Korea is a cautious country, especially when it comes to matters of politics. Yet the island of Dokdo, all 37 islets of it, has the ability to rile up even this relatively tactful nation. A Korean mother-son duo once cut off their fingers (the pinkie, in case you were wondering) in protest to Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the island with the country’s institution of “National Takesheima Day.” And again during the recent 2012 Summer Olympics, Park Jong-woo’s bronze medal was revoked when he rose a “Dokdo is our land” Korean flag after the soccer team’s 2-0 win over Japan. Even South Korea’s current president, Lee Myung-Bak, got his mittens in the mix when he became the first South Korean president to ever visit the disputed islands.

To a lesser extent, yet somewhat still extreme, the passengers on this ferry are just as fervent with their patriotism. They’ll wrestle over four hours of shameful seasickness, for less than 30 minutes on a railed wharf. They’ll revisit yesterday’s meal choices, and maybe even the ones before that, to then nonchalantly pass them along like the entertainment section of Saturday’s newspaper. They’ll put up with the dramatic (again, I’m talking like, heavily exaggerated) yakking of that one raucous foreigner at the back of the boat, and not even question why he saved it all until the last 10 minutes before docking.

I can’t really even pretend to understand. South Koreans have a whole lot of heart when it comes to the island of Dokdo.

And I guess the heart makes you do some pretty irrational things.

Author: Sarah Kloke

Sarah is a columnist for Vagabundo Magazine. She brags a lot about meeting a dude in the Philippines with 11 fingers. She keeps a steady routine of travel, write, brush teeth, repeat, and will continue to do so until she runs out of stories. Or countries. Whichever comes first, really. Sarah has been making different parts of Asia her temporary and not-quite permanent home for the past three years. She also writes at

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  1. Too much puke! Remind me not to take that ferry… I got my first history lesson about Dokdo from my local chicken restaurant (legit!). They have some kind of slogan plastered on the take-out boxes so every time I order food I’m reminded that those islands are indeed Korean. 😉
    Audrey | That Backpacker recently posted..How Long Does It Take To Feel Like A Local?My Profile

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    • I spent like an hour trying to decide if it was appropriate for Vagabundo or not.

      But I figured the article would be pretty misleading had it not been included…

      (Also, I’m fairly confident I will write about vomit again in the future.)
      Sarah recently posted..How Gangnam Style Ruined My SummerMy Profile

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Does Dokdo Even Matter?