TOKYO (AFP) ― The United States on Thursday sacked a senior diplomat who infuriated Japan with reported slurs against the people of Okinawa island, which has reluctantly hosted American forces since World War II.
The State Department’s Japan desk head Kevin Maher was replaced after he reportedly called Okinawans “lazy” and “masters of manipulation and extortion,” triggering outrage in Tokyo and on the far-southern island.
Okinawa, a major WWII battleground, still hosts more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan ― and anti-base sentiment there has become an irritant in ties between half-century security allies Washington and Tokyo.
The United States’ top diplomat for the Asia-Pacific region, Kurt Campbell, on a Tokyo visit Thursday offered the latest in a string of official U.S. apologies when he met Japan’s new Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto.
Campbell told Matsumoto, who took office just a day earlier, that he wanted “personally and on behalf of the U.S. government to convey to you our deepest regret for the current controversy concerning ... statements about Okinawa.”
“I just want to underscore that these in no way reflect the attitudes of warmth and gratitude and friendship that the United States has for the people of Okinawa, and we are deeply apologetic for this.”
Campbell informed Matsumoto that Maher had been demoted and replaced by Rust Deming, the U.S. Embassy said, calling Deming ”a long-time diplomat, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo and a strong friend of Japan.”
As part of a flurry of U.S. activity to prevent a damaging fall-out, Ambassador John Roos was set to immediately travel to Okinawa to apologize, Campbell added.
The assemblies of the island and its main city Naha this week condemned the reported comments from the Washington-based Maher in unanimous resolutions.
Matsumoto told Campbell that, “if what was reported is true, it hurts not only Okinawans but all Japanese,” the foreign minister later told reporters.
But he said that Washington had taken “prompt and appropriate” steps to minimize the damage and emphasized that “Japan values and is ready to deepen the bilateral relationship,” calling it “the core of Japan’s diplomacy.”
Maher’s remarks during an off-the-record speech in Washington in December provoked ire throughout Japan after they were published by Japanese media, which cited notes provided by students who attended the talk.
They added fuel to at-times difficult ties with Washington since the current center-left Democratic Party of Japan government took power in September 2009, ending a half century of almost unbroken conservative rule.
The DPJ’s first premier, Yukio Hatoyama, pledged “more equal” ties with the U.S. and said he favored moving a U.S. Marine airbase off Okinawa rather than relocating it within the island as agreed under an earlier bilateral pact.
Having angered Washington, Hatoyama stalled for months then backtracked, which alienated many Okinawans and Japanese and forced him to step down.
His successor, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, has pledged to honor the original agreement but still faces stern opposition on Okinawa, at a time when low poll ratings and a split parliament threaten his own political survival.
Kan’s former foreign minister, the pro-U.S. security hawk Seiji Maehara, stepped down this week over a donations scandal after just six months in the job and was replaced by Matsumoto, a former vice foreign minister.