A senior U.S. diplomat supervising Japan affairs has been replaced for allegedly making disparaging comments about the inhabitants of a southern Japanese island where U.S. troops are based, the U.S. Embassy and an assistant secretary of state said Thursday.
Kevin Maher caused an uproar by reportedly telling a group of American University students in December that Okinawans were lazy and used their hosting of U.S. bases to extort benefits from Tokyo.
The comments have been widely reported in the Japanese media, and Japan's foreign minister called them hurtful and deeply regrettable.
Maher has been replaced by Rust Deming, the deputy chief of mission in Tokyo, as director of the State Department's Office of Japan Affairs, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement. Maher will continue to work for the State Department.
Visiting Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell refused to say whether the State Department had confirmed what Maher said. But he said the decision to replace him was made for the sake of the overall bilateral relationship.
Okinawa hosts tens of thousands of U.S. Marines and other troops, more than any other part of Japan. Okinawans have often complained that they bear too much of the burden for Japan's security alliance with Washington.
The issue is particularly sensitive now because Tokyo and Washington are negotiating a plan to move about 8,000 Marines off Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam. To do so, they plan to relocate a Marine base on Okinawa to a less crowded part of the island, but many Okinawans oppose that option and want the base closed down.
Campbell said that he has conveyed his deep regrets over the comments to the Japanese government and that the U.S. has "the utmost respect for the Okinawan people."
He said the U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos, had been dispatched to Okinawa Thursday to personally apologize to the Okinawan people.
Campbell described Deming, Maher's replacement, as a "strong friend of Japan."
Under their mutual security pact, about 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan.