Japanese Furious Over U.S. Diplomat's 'Extortion' Remark

U.S. diplomat reportedly called Okinawans "lazy" and "masters of extortion."

TOKYO March 9, 2011 — -- Comments by a U.S. diplomat reportedly disparaging the people of Okinawa as "lazy" and "masters of extortion" , have sparked outrage in Japan, and complicated already tense discussions surrounding the future of a Marine base on the country's southern island.

The comments were allegedly made by Kevin Maher, director of the State Department's Office of Japan Affairs, in an off-the-record lecture given to students at Washington's American University in December. Student notes obtained by Japanese media say Maher called Okinawans "lazy" and "masters of extortion."

The news first surfaced Monday, and prompted a swift response from Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

"If these (comments) were to be true, they not only hurt the feelings of the people of Okinawa, but all of Japan," Edano said. "It is intolerable. I am deeply saddened that this has to be reported on the news."

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa blasted the reported comments as "extremely deplorable," while the Okinawa prefectural assembly and Naha city unanimously adopted a resolution condemning Maher's statements and demanding a retraction and apology.

According to Kyodo News, which obtained notes taken by students who attended the lecture, Maher's comments were made during a speech on "Military Bases and Their Impacts on Okinawa."

The written account claims Maher said, "Consensus building is important in Japanese culture. While the Japanese would call this 'consensus,' they mean 'extortion' and use this culture as a means of extortion."

The comments were an apparent reference to financial subsidies Tokyo pays to Okinawans in exchange for hosting U.S. military bases on the island. Students also noted that Maher called Okinawa residents "too lazy to grow goya," referring to a bitter melon, famously used in local cuisine.

News of the alleged comments have dominated Japanese media, and prompted U.S. officials to play damage control.

Edano said Ambassador John Roos personally reached out to him Tuesday, and expressed "deep regret" for the reported remarks. Edano added, that he believed the appropriate steps would be taken by Roos and the State Department. In a statement released Monday, the U.S. embassy said the comments "attributed to a U.S. government official in no way reflect U.S. government views."

American Diplomatic Causes Uproar With Undiplomatic Language

Maher's comments have struck a nerve with Okinawans, who feel they unfairly shoulder the burden of hosting more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Noise and concerns over safety prompted calls to remove Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from one of Okinawa's most crowded areas.

A bilateral agreement, signed in 2006 calls for Futenma to be moved to a remote part of the southern island, but in recent years, residents and politicians have demanded the base be moved off the island altogether. That's increased tensions between the local and military communities.

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo at the start of a two-day trip, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, offered a personal apology for "misunderstandings" the reports may have caused.

"In all my meetings, I will offer deep apologies for the developments in Okinawa, and the misunderstandings that have taken place," Campbell said. "The alleged statements in no way reflect U.S. government policy and the feelings towards the people of Okinawa."

Maher, who was also expected in Tokyo for bilateral talks Thursday, has canceled his visit.

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