WASHINGTON —Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing Thursday on the Department of Interior’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal, urged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to preserve funding for the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program, which was eliminated in the White House’s proposed budget, but it is Zinke’s tone-deaf response that is making headlines.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (NBC News)

Zinke has been criticized for beginning his remarks by greeting the congresswoman in Japanese. The exchange was as follows:

Hanabusa: “I sit before you, the granddaughter of two internees. Both of my grandfathers were interned during World War II — one in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one in a place called Honouliuli in Hawaii, which people did not know about.

“I didn’t find out about the fact that my grandfather was interned on Oahu for a lot of the wartime until he was 80-something years old, because they didn’t speak about it. And that’s been the problem that many face. The Japanese Americans who served in World War II, as you know, probably the most decorated unit to date in the history of the military, the 100th and the 442nd, as well as those who were interned, just did not speak about it.

“My father was born in Hawaii … a citizen by birth. We were a territory then. And he did not speak about it.

“This president’s budget zeros out what is, I think, a really nominal amount compared to your whole budget. It’s about $2 million. But what it does do is eliminates the grants program that have at least [helped] various institutions throughout the United States who are trying to keep this history alive. Because I believe that it is essential that we as a nation recognize our darkest moments so that we don’t have them repeat again.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (NBC News)

“So, Mr. Secretary, I’d like to know, even with the president zeroing it out, are you committed to continue the grant programs that are identified as … the Japanese American Confinement Sites grants program, which were funded in 2017. Will we see them funded again in 2018?”

Zinke: “Oh, konnichiwa.”

Hanabusa: “I think it’s still ‘Ohayo gozaimasu,’ but that’s okay.”

Zinke: “I guess it’s after 10.”

The secretary told Hanabusa that he would look into the funding, saying, “I agree with you, it is important.”

He suggested that the program may have been caught up in other budget cuts.

Zinke’s use of Japanese drew a swift response from Asian Pacific American elected officials and community organizations.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii): “The internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans is no laughing matter, @SecretaryZinke. What you thought was a clever response to @RepHanabusa was flippant and juvenile.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.): “Nope. Racism is not OK.”

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus: “It is absolutely outrageous that Interior Secretary Zinke chose to racialize Congresswoman Hanabusa’s identity after she spoke about the importance of preserving funding for the Japanese American Confinement Sites where nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. Rather than greet her like he would any other member of Congress, he responded to her as if she did not speak any English.

“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. What is even more alarming is that Secretary Zinke made this stereotype immediately after my colleague discussed the abhorrent racial prejudice that her grandparents and other Japanese Americans endured during World War II due to government-sanctioned profiling.

“Secretary Zinke owes Congresswoman Hanabusa an apology. Instead of perpetuating racial stereotypes, I hope the secretary will work with Congress to prioritize funding for Japanese American Confinement Sites and ensure that we do not forget this dark chapter in American history.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii): “@colleenhanabusa His response dishonors the legacy and sacrifice of our Japanese American community. Thank you for fighting to make sure we never forget the dark days of our nation’s past, when our government sent Japanese Americans like your grandparents to internment camps.”

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.): “My colleague asked Sec. Zinke a serious question about gov’t funding and received the response ‘Konnichiwa.’ This blatantly insensitive remark by @secretaryzinke is uncalled for and is not behavior that a Cabinet secretary should exhibit.”

Japanese American Citizens League: “Like most Americans, JACL is dismayed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s attempt at humor, patronization, or combination of the two, when he addressed Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a fourth-generation American, in Japanese. His flippant remark was inappropriate and lacking the respect he afforded other representatives during the same hearing.

“Ironically, this slight was made immediately following the congresswoman’s passionate plea for continued funding of the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program, which serves the purpose to ‘identify, research, evaluate, interpret, protect, restore, repair, and acquire historic confinement sites in order that present and future generations may learn and gain inspiration from these sites and that these sites will demonstrate the nation’s commitment to equal justice under the law.’ The preceding language is taken directly from the National Park Service website that Secretary Zinke oversees.

“The injustice of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans was due to the very racist sentiments unintentionally exhibited in Secretary Zinke’s flippant comment, that Japanese Americans were and are perpetually foreign. Although not as brazen as Gen. [John] DeWitt’s statement in 1942 that ‘A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not,’ the sentiment is not so dissimilar.

“If anything, Secretary Zinke’s comment clarifies and reinforces the need for full funding of the JACS program. This program was established in 2006 with broad bipartisan support and has since provided $23 million to 186 different programs in 21 states plus the District of Columbia.

“We are grateful to the over 54 bipartisan members of the House of Representatives that have signed on to a letter of support for continued funding of the JACS program. On Wednesday, JACL submitted a letter from 114 organizations to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies calling for continued funding.

“We urge Congress to continue funding of the JACS program at the same level as years past.

“For more information on the program, please visit our website (www.jacl.org).”

Mitchell Maki, president and CEO of Go For Broke National Education Center: “Secretary Zinke’s addressing Representative Colleen Hanabusa with ‘konnichiwa’ in a formal congressional hearing reflects his inability to distinguish an American of Japanese ancestry from a citizen of Japan. This is especially significant when discussing funding for programs that educate Americans about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans — a historic injustice based on this same critical mistake.

“While Secretary Zinke may have had no ill intentions with this remark, his lack of awareness is alarming. His comment flies in the face of America’s promise — the promise that in our nation, no one is to be judged by the color of their skin, the nation of their origin, or the God whom they choose to worship. That is a promise that is as important today as it ever has been.”

Karen Korematsu, founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute: “I was outraged first by Secretary Zinke’s disrespect to Rep. Hanabusa and second to his ignorance to teaching the lessons of American history.”

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