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US State Department Moves to Repair Diplomatic Rift with Japan

Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs (R) meets newly appointed Japan's Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, March 10, 2011

The State Department went into damage-control mode Thursday to repair a sudden rift with its long-time political and military ally, Japan.

The head of the department’s Japan desk, Kevin Maher, has been jettisoned for remarks attributed to him during an off-the-record lecture.

Maher was reported to have termed Okinawa's politicians as masters of "manipulation" and "extortion" and said people there are too lazy to grow vegetables.

The lecture to students at American University in Washington took place three months ago, but notes on Maher’s comments, which he said were not accurate, only became public this week.

Okinawa hosts a large portion of the U.S. military facilities in Japan. Difficult negotiations are underway involving the relocation of a controversial U.S. Marine air base there.

At the start of a meeting Thursday in Tokyo with Japan’s foreign minister, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell apologized for what he called the "alleged" comments.

"These [comments] in no way reflect the attitudes of warmth and gratitude and friendship that the United States has for the people of Okinawa. And, we are deeply apologetic for this controversy," said Campbell.

Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto told reporters that, if the comments were indeed made, they hurt not only Okinawans, but all Japanese.

However, Matsumoto says the United States took prompt and appropriate steps to minimize damage to the relationship, which he terms the core of Japan’s diplomacy.

Following the meeting in Tokyo, the United States sent Ambassador John Roos to aplogize to the Okinawan people in person.

Maher, a career foreign service officer who was the consul general on Okinawa for three years, is being replaced by Rust Deming, a retired veteran diplomat who spent most of his career dealing with Japan issues. He held the number-two post in the embassy in Tokyo and was also U.S. ambassador to Tunisia.

The controversy has overshadowed Campbell’s scheduled two days of talks with foreign and defense ministry officials in Tokyo.

Campbell says he hopes U.S.-Japan talks involving top officials responsible for diplomacy and security will be held within the next several months.

The assistant secretary arrives in Seoul on Saturday for ongoing consultations with senior South Korean officials. Issues involving North Korea are expected to dominate the agenda.