US Japan desk diplomat replaced for Okinawa comments

File image of aircraft at Futenma airbase in Okinawa on 17 December 2010
Image caption The US has more than 30 different military bases within Okinawa prefecture

The head of the US state department's desk for Japan has been replaced, for apparently making disparaging remarks about the people of Okinawa.

Japanese media quoted the official, Kevin Maher, as saying Okinawans were lazy and used their island's hosting of US military bases to extort benefits.

The state department said the remarks attributed to Mr Maher were regrettable and did not reflect government policy.

More than 30 US bases in Okinawa support the Japan-US security alliance.

Mr Maher has been replaced by Rust Deming, the deputy chief of mission in Tokyo.

A statement from the US embassy in Tokyo said visiting Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell had expressed deep regrets over the comments, which were made in December.

Mr Campbell said the US has "the utmost respect for the Okinawan people".

Bases threat

The BBC's Tokyo correspondent, Roland Buerk, says the military bases on Okinawa have long been a source of tension between Japan and the United States.

With local people campaigning for their burden to be reduced, he says there was outrage when Mr Maher was reported to have described the islanders as lazy and masters of manipulation and extortion.

The Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said the remarks - reportedly made in a lecture to American college students - made a mockery of the Okinawan people.

Our correspondent says the reported remarks by Mr Maher could stir further opposition on Okinawa to a 2006 US-Japan agreement to relocate the Futenma US marine airbase to a less populated part of the island.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who is currently fighting to hold his government in office, has promised to implement that agreement.

But local residents and environmentalists say the base should be moved off Okinawa, which currently hosts 74% of all US bases in Japan.

Failure to fulfil a promise to move it to another part of Japan or even out of the country altogether helped bring down a previous prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama.

For many Okinawa residents, the US bases have brought pollution, noise, accidents and higher rates of crime.

The US and Japan have agreed that drills involving some Okinawa-based F-15 fighters will be relocated to Guam, as part of efforts to reduce the US military footprint in Okinawa.

The deadlock has strained the decades-old US-Japan security alliance.

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