Editorial: Okinawa’s outrage should be heeded

Remarks made by Kevin Maher, the director of the office of Japan affairs at the U.S. State Department, were utterly disdainful toward Okinawa and an insult to the Japanese people. The U.S. government has responded by saying that Mr. Maher's words “in no way represent the view or policies of the United States of America.” But the comments made by Mr. Maher have already ruffled relations.

As a consequence of describing the people of Okinawa as “masters of manipulation and extortion,” Mr. Maher has been justly dismissed from his post.

On March 10, Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East and Pacific affairs, visited Takeaki Matsumoto, Japan’s foreign minister, to offer a formal apology. This swift action on the part of the United States reflects that nation's desire to temper the flap as quickly as possible.

Behind the crisis mode of U.S. government action are the unexpectedly strong display of anger and the mounting anti-American sentiments expressed by the people of Okinawa. Remedying the situation will not be a simple matter.

Mr. Maher's remarks were made in a lecture to university students that was held at the state department. He was quoted as saying, “Okinawans are too lazy to grow goya.” (Goya is a vegetable often translated as “bitter melon.”) He also described the Japanese culture of “wa” (harmony) as “a means of extortion.” His remarks reflect a jaundiced view.

His most insensitive comment came in connection with one of the major concerns of the Japan-U.S. relationship: the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan.

To move forward with the current plan to relocate the air station to a site in Henoko, Nago, Mr. Maher said that Tokyo needs to tell the governor of Okinawa: “If you want money, sign it.”

In the past, the Japanese government has pressed municipalities to host U.S. military bases by offering generous subsidies and regional development measures in return.

However, the situation has changed. Considering the results of recent elections held in Okinawa, it is clear that this method of coercing municipalities to accept military bases is no longer effective.

Since Mr. Maher served as the U.S. consul general in Okinawa and is believed to be well-versed in Japanese matters, his remarks are all the more outrageous. Above all, as director in charge, he stood at the forefront of Japan-U.S. relations and was in a position to express his ideas directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Okinawa’s anger has grown stronger each day. A majority of municipal councils, including the prefecture and the city of Nago, have passed a resolution calling for the remarks to be retracted and an apology made. It is also natural that some people believe Mr. Maher's remarks are an indication of America's mindset, which holds disdain for Okinawa.

More broadly, beyond Mr. Maher's posture, there is concern that U.S. policies toward Japan are rooted in a sense of inequity between the two nations. The Japanese government should act with resolve, urging the United States to view Okinawa rightly and calling for serious reflection on this issue.

Another concern is the lukewarm response of the Japanese government. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano at first indicated that Tokyo would not attach special importance to Mr. Maher’s remarks, but this attitude changed following the strong reaction from Okinawa. He eventually telephoned U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos and remonstrated that Mr. Maher’s remarks were unacceptable. Tokyo’s indecisiveness is deserving of criticism.

Still fresh in our minds is the remark made by Yukio Hatoyama, the former prime minister. He said the deterrence factor of the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa was the reason he decided to abandon the idea of moving the air station out of Okinawa completely. With this comment, he threw the already stalled negotiations over the relocation of the air station into further confusion.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has continuously forced Okinawa to bear the burden of national security, while the country pursued great prosperity. This is seen clearly in the fact that some 75 percent of U.S. military bases are located in Okinawa.

Tokyo should face up to the outrage of Okinawa and reconsider its policies involving U.S. military bases.

(Originally published on March 11, 2011)