TOKYO — A top American diplomat has been removed from his post after stirring outrage in Japan for reportedly belittling Okinawans, a State Department official said on Thursday.
The official, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell, also said the United States ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos, flew to Okinawa on Thursday to apologize in person to the governor of the island, which hosts about half of the 50,000 American military personnel in Japan.
According to Japanese press reports, the diplomat, Kevin K. Maher, told American university students in December that the Okinawans were “masters of manipulation and distortion.” Mr. Maher, who was head of the State Department’s office of Japan affairs, has called the media reports inaccurate and incomplete.
While it was unclear why it took so long for the comments to become public, they have become front-page news in Japan, where many people called them racist. On Thursday, ultra-nationalist groups used loudspeakers to protest in front of the United States Embassy in Tokyo.
But the most intense anger appeared in Okinawa, where there is deep resentment over the heavy United States military presence. Earlier this week, the Okinawan prefectural assembly adopted a resolution calling for a retraction and apology.
Japanese officials have expressed concern because the comments came at a sensitive time. Tokyo has been trying to persuade Okinawans to accept the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma elsewhere on the island as part of a broader agreement that would reduce American forces on Okinawa.
Seeking to control the damage, Mr. Campbell, who is in Tokyo for two days of talks, said he repeatedly apologized to Japanese officials for misunderstandings caused by the reported remarks. He said Mr. Maher had been replaced as head of Japan affairs, although he still works for the State Department.
“We do believe that this has caused some harm,” Mr. Campbell told reporters in Tokyo. The reported comments “in no way reflect the views of the government of the United States and the people of the United States.”
On Thursday, Mr. Campbell met with Japan’s new foreign minister, Takeaki Matsumoto, who has said that if the reports were true, the comments were “unacceptable” and “hurt the feelings of not only Okinawans but all Japanese.”