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U.S. officer in Japan apologizes for comments

Lt. Gen. Hailston, left, meets with Okinawan Gov. Inamine at the prefectural office in Naha, southern Japan, on Thursday  

TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- The chief of U.S. military forces on the island of Okinawa has apologized for calling top local officials "nuts and a bunch of wimps" -- comments that inflamed long-standing resentment against the large U.S. military presence on Japan's southernmost prefecture.

"To all of the Okinawans, I'm very sorry," said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston. The apology came after the general met Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine and other top officials Thursday to explain his comments about them.

A local newspaper first revealed the remarks made in an internal e-mail. In that message, Hailston wrote, "I think they are all nuts and a bunch of wimps."

The comments triggered outrage among many in Okinawa. "He said something he should never have said. The Okinawan people are very upset at his remarks," said Chiken Kakazu of Japan's lower house of parliament and a member of the Liberal Democratic Party.

About 26,000 of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan as part of the U.S.-Japan security alliance are based on Okinawa. They have been involved in a number of incidents harmful to the U.S. relationship with the island, including the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.

Hailston's "wimp" remarks were apparently an expression of frustration at local officials' response to the arrest of a Marine who allegedly lifted the skirt of a young girl to take a photo.

It was taken out of a private message to Hailston's commanders that Hailston says was intended to reinforce discipline of "the small number of Marines whose inappropriate conduct unfairly brands all of us as lacking in discipline and respect for our Okinawa hosts and neighbors."

Several resolutions have been drawn up by local assemblies, including a demand for Hailston to step down. The incident has put Tokyo in a difficult spot as it tries to balance the wishes of the locals and its closest ally.

"It does hurt the Okinawan people in their feelings. But, of course, it's not our wish and it's not our position that this incident will jeopardize the overall relationship between Japan and the United States," said Japanese press secretary Norio Hattori.

But with the controversial comments coming from such a high-ranking U.S. military man, some observers say the incident hurts U.S. relations on Okinawa, especially as both sides try to honor promises to reduce the footprint of the U.S. military in the prefecture.

"His remarks made the Okinawan people realize that the U.S. military leaders still keep their way of thinking during the (post World War II) occupation," Kakazu said. "I expect anti-U.S. and anti-base feelings to strengthen."

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