A senior U.S. diplomat supervising Japan affairs abruptly left his post today after the State Department apologized for comments he allegedly made calling the people of Okinawa "lazy" and "masters of extortion."
The U.S. embassy in Tokyo released a statement saying Kevin Maher, former director of the State Department's Office of Japan Affairs has been replaced by longtime diplomat Rust Deming.
News of Maher's replacement overshadowed Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell's two-day visit to Tokyo.
In a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, Campbell offered yet another apology for Maher's comments.
"These in no way reflect the attitudes of warmth and gratitude and friendship that the United States has for the people of Okinawa," he said. "We are deeply apologetic for this controversy."
The State Department has been playing damage control, since reports of Maher's comments disparaging Okinawans surfaced Monday.
The alleged remarks were made during a lecture to American University students in Washington about "Military Bases and Their Impacts on Okinawa."
Student notes obtained by Japanese media, claims Maher called residents of Japan's southern island "lazy" and "masters of extortion," an apparent reference to financial subsidies Tokyo pays to Okinawans in exchange for hosting U.S. military bases on the island.
Word of Maher's reported comments quickly spread through the media, and prompted the Okinawa prefectural assembly and Naha city to adopt a resolution condemning the diplomat's statements and demanding a retraction and apology.
The uproar comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-Japan relations. The two countries have been locked in a debate over the future of a marine base on the southern island.
While a 2006 agreement calls for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to be moved to a remote part of Okinawa, the plan has faced fierce opposition from locals who want the base off the island altogether.
Okinawa hosts more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
"I've made clear that these comments, if true, not only hurt the people of Okinawa but all Japan," Matsumoto said, following his meeting with Campbell. "The U.S. is doing the best they can, as quickly as they can."
Ambassador John Roos was expected to visit Okinawa, to meet with Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and offer a personal apology on behalf of the U.S.
The newly appointed Deming previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.