The Cable

Embattled State Department Japan hand key part of earthquake response

Before the 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 10, one of the biggest news stories in Tokyo was then State Department Director of Japan Affairs Kevin Maher‘s alleged remarks disparaging Okinawans for their stance on the relocation of a U.S. air base on the island. Maher was removed his post due to the controversy, ...

Before the 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 10, one of the biggest news stories in Tokyo was then State Department Director of Japan Affairs Kevin Maher‘s alleged remarks disparaging Okinawans for their stance on the relocation of a U.S. air base on the island. Maher was removed his post due to the controversy, but nevertheless has been working around the clock to help lead the U.S. government’s response to the crisis.

Inside the "Operations Center" on the 7th floor of the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom, the Japan Earthquake Task Force is working 24 hours a day to coordinate U.S. assistance to the stricken area and keep lines of communication open between U.S. government agencies, foreign governments, and non-governmental organizations on the ground. Maher is the coordinator for the night shift (daytime in Japan), and has been working from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night since the quake hit.

Maher was removed as director of the Japan office at State on March 9, following reports that he told a group of American University (AU) students that Okinawan people were masters of "extortion," but he was not fired and it was never proven that he made the incendiary comments. Maher has denied the accuracy of the press reports regarding his comments. According to State Department sources, he planned to retire following the controversy, but has now put off that retirement to contribute to the earthquake response, which could last for a while.

Maher is uniquely qualified to help in the response, and not just because he led the Japan Affairs office until the day before the quake. He has served in Japan multiple times during his career, and was the U.S. embassy’s minister-counselor for environment, science and technology affairs in Tokyo from 2001 to 2005, during which time he covered the nuclear industry.

Ironically, Maher’s experience as consul in Okinawa from 2006 to 2009 might also come in handy. Maher’s alleged remarks to the AU students spoke to the frustration of both U.S. and Japanese officials about the plan to relocate the Marine Corps air base in Futenma to a different part of Okinawa’s main island. Many Okinawans oppose having a base on the island at all.

But as it turns out, the Futenma air base has been active in supporting the earthquake relief response, including deploying helicopters to aid in search and recovery of victims of the devastating tsunami.

The State Department’s task force is made up of 14 people representing various bureaus and offices throughout the administration. Their job is to coordinate the U.S. government and military response and serve as the central point of contact for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other principals, while, acting as the main communication link to the U.S. embassy in Japan.

The coordinator for the day shift is Rust Deming, a professor of Japan studies at Johns Hopkins and a former ambassador to Tunisia, who stepped in to head up the State Department’s Japan office when Maher stepped down last week. Deming has held much more senior positions, so his reappearance in the East Asian and Pacific (EAP) bureau is seen as a temporary step to draw upon his expertise until a full-time replacement can be found.

USAID also has established a Response Management Team (RMT) on the 9th floor of its headquarters in downtown Washington’s Ronald Reagan building, headed by Mark Bartolini, which is tasked with supporting USAID’s disaster and assistance response team (DART) on the ground in Japan and with coordinating the humanitarian side of the U.S. government assistance effort.

For close observers of the U.S.-Japan relationship, the Maher incident shows that more needs to be done to build trust between officials on both sides to ensure that smaller issues don’t get blown out of proportion such that larger cooperation suffers, especially in an emergency.

"The alliance managers showed a lack of courage by throwing [Maher] under the bus," and removing him from his post, one Washington Japan expert told The Cable. "But now they realize they need all Japan hands on deck for this crisis."

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