U.S. diplomat accused of disparaging Okinawans

Islanders 'masters of manipulation and extortion' on Futenma issue

Kyodo News

A U.S. official in charge of Japanese affairs at the State Department is said to have likened the Japanese cultural principle of maintaining social harmony to “extortion” and described Okinawans as “lazy” during a speech in Washington late last year.

According to a written account compiled by students who attended the lecture at the State Department, Kevin Maher, head of the Japanese affairs office and a former consul general in Okinawa Prefecture, described Okinawan people as “masters of manipulation and extortion” when dealing with the central government.

“I am not in a position to comment on the record at this time,” Maher said, noting his briefing was an off-the-record event. He said the account made available to Kyodo News is “neither accurate nor complete.”

Maher has been involved in the bilateral negotiations on relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and is known to be an advocate of relocating it elsewhere in the prefecture, an idea detested by local residents.

The remarks attributed to Maher are making waves.

They are “racially discriminating against Okinawa,” said Teruo Hiyane, a scholar on postwar Okinawan history. Ukeru Magosaki, a former diplomat, said Maher’s reported view on Japan is “biased and completely distorted.”

Maher gave the speech Dec. 3 at the request of American University to a group of 14 students who were about to embark on a roughly two-week study tour of Tokyo and Okinawa.

In the speech, Maher was quoted as saying, “Consensus building is important in Japanese culture. While the Japanese would call this ‘consensus,’ they mean ‘extortion’ and use this culture of consensus as a means of extortion.

“By pretending to seek consensus, people try to get as much money as possible,” he said.

Maher also criticized the people of Okinawa as “too lazy to grow ‘goya’ (bitter gourd),” a traditional summer vegetable in the prefecture, according to the account.

On the base, which is situated in a crowded residential area of Ginowan, Maher allegedly said that while Okinawans claim the base is the most dangerous in the world, they know it’s not true.

The civilian airports in Fukuoka and Osaka are “just as dangerous,” he reportedly said.

Maher was quoted as saying that the Japanese government “needs to tell the Okinawan governor, ‘If you want money, sign it,” referring to the Futenma relocation plan.

Students who took notes during Maher’s speech said he definitely made the remarks, and at least one said it was surprising to hear statements full of bias coming from a person in the U.S. government.

The air base affair in Okinawa has been dragging on for well over a decade.

Maher, 56, served as the consul general in Okinawa from 2006 to 2009 after joining the State Department in 1981 and being posted to Tokyo and Fukuoka.

Maher said of the account provided to Kyodo that he “cannot control how individual students themselves might interpret remarks” and “it would therefore not be appropriate” to attribute any specific remarks to him “based upon secondhand information coming from students or others.”

In the summer of 2008, while he was posted in Okinawa, Maher sparked controversy after questioning why the local authorities were allowing the construction of homes in the residential area around the Futenma air base. Plaintiffs seeking damages over noise from the U.S. base then presented him with a written demand calling on him to immediately leave Okinawa.

Magosaki, former head of the international intelligence office at the Foreign Ministry, said he had the impression that “U.S. officials in charge of recent U.S.-Japan negotiations shared ideas like those of Mr. Maher,” adding “in that sense, his remarks were not especially distorted.”