What seemed like a routine visit to the State Department by a group of college students last December has now become a thorn in the side of the U.S.-Japan relationship and cost the State Department's Japan desk director his job.
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell just happened to be landing in Tokyo on Wednesday as the controversy over remarks about Okinawa allegedly made by Director of Japan Affairs Kevin Maher to a visiting group of American University students reached a fever pitch across Japan. Campbell's apology as he stepped off the plane was only the first of several he's going to be making about the controversy while in Tokyo.
"I will, in all of my meetings, offer deep apologies for the developments in Okinawa and for the misunderstandings that have taken place. I think as you all know, the alleged statements in no way reflect U.S. government policy, or indeed the deep feelings of the American people towards the people of Okinawa," Campbell said. "We are deeply saddened by these recent developments and I will in all of my meetings express deep regret for the misunderstandings that have taken place. These statements not only reflect my own personal attitudes, but the attitudes of the American government."
Campbell was referring to the controversy over a December meeting at the State Department between Maher and a group of students who asked for a briefing before taking a trip to Okinawa. One of the students gave the Japanese press a memo of notes from the meeting, which stated that Maher said that the Okinawan people were masters of "manipulation" and "extortion" when dealing with U.S.-Japanese plans to relocate the Marine Corps' Futenma air base to another part of the main Okinawan island.
"By pretending to seek consensus, people try to get as much money as possible. Okinawans are masters of ‘manipulation' and ‘extortion' of Tokyo," Maher allegedly said, according to the memo of the off-the-record briefing. The memo also accuses Maher of calling Okinawan politicians liars and saying the Okinawan people are lazy, have social problems, and often drive drunk.
Maher told Japan's Kyodo news that the memo was not accurate and contained several misrepresentations about what he said. Nevertheless, a State Department official confirmed to The Cable that Maher will step down from his job as head of the Japan desk immediately and be given another role at the State Department, as a result of the national uproar in Japan about the alleged remarks.
What Maher didn't know at the time of his meeting was that this was no ordinary group of American University students. One leader of the group was a Japanese activist who works hard to build opposition to any U.S. basing on Okinawa. That activist, Sayo Saruta, was one of two student leaders for the group of mostly American AU students and participated in the meeting at the State Department. Maher didn't know that the group was led by an anti-base activist until the memo was leaked this week.
The State Department could have known Saruta's agenda had they just done a little research. She is a very public critic of U.S. military bases in Japan. The website for the students' Japan trip identifies her as "the leader of the Network for Okinawa, an organization calling for the closure of bases in Okinawa."
Saruta also works with the website closethebase.org, which is run with help from the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal foreign policy think tank in Washington, DC. John Feffer, who works at IPS and is co-director of their Foreign Policy in Focus project, told The Cable that the purpose of the Network for Okinawa "was to have a U.S. counterpart for the activists in Okinawa."
Feffer said he didn't know if Maher's remarks were reported accurately but he said that if they were, they were an "expression of frustration among U.S. government officials about the consistent opposition by Okinawans to any plan to relocate the Futenma base on Okinawa and frustration with the Japanese government for not moving more quickly."
The original idea to relocate the base was agreed to in 1996 and the plan to do it was signed by both governments in 2006. Since then, the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan since World War II, fell to a government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which hasn't been able or willing to confront local Okinawan politicians on the issue.
"For the most part the U.S. government hasn't really cared what the politics are in Okinawa. They've worked through Tokyo and expect the Tokyo government to take care of the situation, which hasn't happened," Feffer said.
The Obama administration came in hoping to work with the DPJ on the Futenma issue, but cooperation and top-level relations broke down in late 2009 when then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama promised the Japanese he would move the base off of Okinawa and then reversed himself.
"There is always some level of opposition to U.S.-Japan proposals for realigning bases on Okinawa. It is much worse now because Hatoyama raised and then dashed expectations in a way that made a difficult problem even harder," said Michael Green, who was the NSC's senior director for Asia during the Bush administration. He defended Maher, who was the head consular official in Okinawa from 2006 to 2009.
"Maher is a veteran Japan hand who knows the politics of Okinawa better than just about anyone. It sounds like this was an ambush and his comments were selectively distorted to suit the agenda of the event organizers, though perhaps he should have seen that coming given the audience," said Green. "In any case, the real fault is with the Japanese press for trying to manufacture a crisis out of an off-the-record discussion with students."
Japan expert Mindy Kotler, who directs the organization Asia Policy Point, said that both sides are to blame. U.S. officials often talk insensitively about the Okinawan objections to the base and Okinawans often blow such comments widely out of proportion.
Nevertheless, the incident illustrates that the small cadre of U.S. government officials and experts who have been dealing with Japan for years is not tuned in to the rising level of frustration in Japan about American policy and the growing momentum of the anti-base movement both in Japan and around the world, she said.
"There's no reason that Maher should have gone into that room thinking this was just another group of average college kids," Kotler said.
"Instead of getting upset of what he did or did not say we should focus on where the frustration comes from. The alliance managers have not done enough to try to understand what's behind the changing politics in Japan and how to adapt."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.