Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is facing criticism from some lawmakers after he responded to a congresswoman's question about preserving the history of World War II-era Japanese-American incarceration with "konnichiwa."
During Thursday's House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, asked Zinke about the future of a grant program that advocates say is in danger under President Donald Trump’s proposed 2019 budget.
“Are you committed to continue to grant programs that are identified, I believe, as the Japanese American Confinement Sites grants program which were funded in 2017? Will we see them funded again in 2018?” Hanabusa, who acknowledged her grandfathers were interned during World War II, asked.
Zinke replied, "Oh, konnichiwa," before beginning to answer Hanabusa's question.
"“I think it’s still 'ohayo gozaimasu,' but that's OK," Hanabusa said, correcting him with the Japanese greeting for "good morning."
Konnichiwa means "good afternoon."
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, called Zinke's choice of greeting "outrageous" and demanded an apology.
"Rather than greet her like he would any other Member of Congress, he responded to her as if she did not speak any English," Chu said. "Whether intentional or not, his comments invoke the offensive stereotype that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners regardless of how long their families have lived in the United States."
Among the lawmakers who also criticized Zinke were Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who tweeted: "The internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans is no laughing matter, @SecretaryZinke. What you thought was a clever response to @RepHanabusa was flippant & juvenile."
Though his remark drew backlash and immediate attention on social media, on Saturday Zinke defended his remark after a tour of the Southern border. “How could ever saying ‘Good morning’ be bad?” he said.
The Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) program has provided more than $21 million of funding for the research and preservation of World War II-era incarceration camps, collection centers, and Department of Justice prisons fore more than a decade.
Zinke said at Thursday's hearing that any absence of future funding for the program "probably got caught up" among other items in the budget and that he would look into it.