The US replaced a senior diplomat handling policy toward Japan yesterday and apologized after his reported comments threatened to strain ties between the allies at a time of political deadlock in Tokyo and worries about a rising China.
A senior US official who is visiting Tokyo acknowledged the reported remarks had done some harm to ties between the world’s No. 1 and No. 3 economies, but said the two countries would press ahead with efforts to strengthen and broaden their alliance.
Kevin Maher, director of the office of Japan affairs at the US Department of State, was quoted by media as telling US students that residents of Okinawa — host to about half the US military in Japan — were masters of “manipulation” and “extortion.”
It was an apparent reference to criticism that residents of Okinawa, one of Japan’s poorest regions, want economic aid in return for accepting US bases on the southern island.
The issue of US military bases in Okinawa has long been a thorn in relations between the allies.
The furor emerged as unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan — struggling to keep his own job — scrambled to replace former Japanese foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who abruptly quit on Sunday after admitting he had accepted, albeit unknowingly, about US$3,000 in donations from a Korean national living in Japan.
Kan promoted junior minister Takeaki Matsumoto to the key post on Wednesday.
US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, in Tokyo for security talks, spent most of his time apologizing and said US Ambassador John Roos was flying to Okinawa to do the same.
However, while admitting “some harm” had been done, Campbell said the allies would continue work to define new strategic objectives, and bolster defense cooperation at “two plus two” talks between foreign and defense ministers.
“We are moving toward what we believe will be a major statement on the way forward, giving the pressing developments in the Asian-Pacific region,” he told reporters.