WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is still in hot water over his response last week when Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) urged him to preserve funding for the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grants program during a House budget hearing.

Before promising to look into the matter, Zinke greeted Hanabusa with a Japanese phrase, “Konnichiwa.” After an awkward silence, Hanabusa replied that “Ohayo gozaimasu” would be more appropriate since it was still morning.

Responding to subsequent criticism from Asian Pacific American legislators and civil rights organizations, Zinke — while in Arizona on Saturday for a U.S.-Mexico border tour — said that the phrase was innocent and inoffensive.

“How could ever saying ‘Good morning’ be bad?” he asked.

Critics pointed out that it would have been equally strange if Hanabusa had greeted Zinke in German.

Hanabusa on March 17 issued a statement on the White House’s proposed budget, which eliminates funding for JACS, as well as the Zinke incident:

“The real issue here is that the administration ignored one of the most racially motivated periods in American history by defunding the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program. Last year 23 organizations in seven states received JACS funding totaling $2,869,500 to create curriculum, build infrastructure and finance programs, some at former internment sites like Honouliuli and Sante Fe, New Mexico. These programs tell the horrific stories of 120,000 Japanese American men, women and children, including my grandfathers, who were arrested and imprisoned during World War II.

“When Secretary Zinke chose to address me in Japanese (when no one else was greeted in their ancestral language), I understood ‘This is precisely why Japanese Americans were treated as they were more than 75 years ago.’ It is racial stereotyping. How ironic that the most decorated unit in military history, the 100th Battalion, 442 Regimental Combat Team, fought for a country that considered them enemy aliens.

“We must never forget our voices or the fact that we must fight so all can remember the injustice. Remember so it is never repeated. I call upon you to join in the fight to ensure this country never forgets that it imprisoned its people because of their ancestry, not because they committed a crime.”

She urged concerned citizens to send Zinke messages in support of the grants program, officially known as Public Law 109-441, 120 Stat. 3288.

Additional comments about the “konnichi wa” greeting:

Japanese American National Museum: “The Japanese American National Museum is profoundly disappointed by the insulting treatment of Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. By flippantly responding in Japanese to her impassioned plea for the continued funding of the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program, Secretary Zinke demonstrated a shocking level of insensitivity and cultural ignorance.

“Rep. Hanabusa is a fourth-generation American. To address her with a phrase he clearly did not know the meaning of, in a language that he is clearly not familiar with, during a hearing on a serious matter related to one of this nation’s darkest chapters of history is inexcusable.

“The ignorance that Secretary Zinke displayed is precisely why the JACS grant program is so important. Through JACS grants, the historic sites where Japanese American were imprisoned during World War II simply for ‘looking like the enemy’ are protected and a wide range of institutions and organizations, including JANM, are able to teach important lessons about the unlawful incarceration of 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry. Those lessons are no less important today; if anything, our world today demands that history be remembered so that what happened to Japanese Americans in the 1940s is never allowed to happen again.

“Secretary Zinke’s inappropriate comment demonstrates and perpetuates the racist perception that Japanese Americans and other ethnic minorities are always ‘foreigners,’ regardless of having been in the United States for several generations. This type of racism is what led to the violation of Constitutional rights during World War II, when our country’s leaders wrongly thought of American-born individuals of Japanese ancestry as ‘the enemy.’

“We are somewhat heartened by Secretary Zinke’s acknowledgment that the JACS grant program is indeed important. We hope his other future remarks show the proper respect to all of our nation’s peoples and their elected representatives.”

Asian Americans Advancing Justice: “Secretary Zinke’s remark was both inappropriate for the occasion and insensitive to Congresswoman Hanabusa, who had just imparted a deeply personal story of her grandfathers both being held in internment camps. Instead of showing sensitivity toward the subject and Rep. Hanabusa, Secretary Zinke chose that inopportune time to share his lack of Japanese cultural knowledge when he responded flippantly, ‘Oh, Konnichiwa’ rather than offer a serious reply to the congresswoman’s question.

“His remark also demonstrates the ‘perpetual foreigner’ problem faced by Asian Pacific Americans. Although she is a fourth-generation American-born member of Congress, Secretary Zinke somehow thought it appropriate to greet the congresswoman in Japanese.

“The most appropriate remark Secretary Zinke could and should have made would have been to acknowledge Rep. Hanabusa’s tragic story and respect our shared history of the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans as a shameful, dark moment in U.S. history that should be remembered as such by this administration. Secretary Zinke’s gaffe demonstrates how little we have learned from our history and why the administration must continue to fund these memorials.”

Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force: “This is an example of why preservation of sites representing the history of Americans of Japanese descent is important. We do hope that Secretary Zinke follows through and will work to save the Japanese American Confinement Sites grants.”

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  1. Aloha: I don’t know how using a polite greeting in the language of someone’s ethnicity can be insensitive, inappropriate, ignorant, flippant, juvenile or offensive, unless you are either ashamed of your ancestry or seeking to offend the speaker. For the record, I lived and worked in Japan for many years (50s & 60s) and know that “konnichi wa” is not only very polite but very correct, in either morning or afternoon. Konnichi means “day” and the translation “good day” is very correct, and in this case very polite, morning or afternoon, even though “Ohayo gozaimasu” is more common in the morning hours. If Rep. Hanabusa is so sensitive about being of Japanese ancestry, why does she use her maiden (Japanese) surname, instead of her Portuguese married name. Are her Hawaiian constituents now expected to be offended when non-Hawaiians greet them with “aloha,” even though, like Hanabusa, their first language is most often English. If we hear her greeting Hawaiians with any form of Hawaiian language greeting, no matter how correct or polite, are we to assume that she is guilty of “racial stereotyping?” If she had given some thought before speaking, she might have returned the pleasantries, greeting the Secretary with “Guten Tag!” (pronounced goo-tehn tahk) in German, since his family name suggests that he is ethnically German. Think positive. There’s more than enough “negativity” in our country already. Her publicity campaign over the Secretary’s polite greeting looks like a cheap publicity stunt of a politician. As a polyglot and retired language teacher, I think we should be more inclusive, and slower to try to stir up controversy over someone’s effort to be polite by recognize someone’s ethnicity. Rep. Hanabusa’s publicity campaign over this detracted from the very important purpose of the meeting, at the very least. And the racially charged comments about the Secretary from some of her supporters made it even worse.