World / Politics

'Oh, konnichiwa': U.S. interior secretary's remark to lawmaker of Japanese descent draws fire

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke came under fire this week for what critics said was a “flippant” and “juvenile” use of a Japanese greeting when responding to a question from a congresswoman of Japanese descent during a House committee hearing.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, of Hawaii, asked Zinke on Thursday whether he would continue a program that preserves sites where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. Zinke replied using a Japanese greeting typically spoken in the afternoon. The Democratic congresswoman, who said two of her grandparents were subjected to internment, corrected him and used the Japanese phrase for “good morning.”

“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 asked in reference to a program that offers grants toward the preservation of internment camps where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II.

“Oh, konnichiwa,” Zinke replied, using a Japanese greeting typically used in midday.

After a brief silence, Hanabusa corrected Zinke, using the Japanese greeting for “good morning.”

“I think it’s still ‘ohayo gozaimasu,’ but that’s OK,” she said.

Zinke’s response prompted a flood of criticism, including from Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono.

“The internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans is no laughing matter, @SecretaryZinke,” Hirono wrote on Twitter. “What you thought was a clever response to @RepHanabusa was flippant & juvenile.”

Others cited Zinke’s remarks as justifying the need for continued funding of the internment cites.

“No better example of why we need continued support for historical sites where the rights of Japanese Americans were violated b/c of race,” tweeted California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu. “Zinke’s comment betrayed a prejudice that being Asian makes you a perpetual foreigner. Intentional or not, it’s offensive. He should apologize.”

Meanwhile, Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth tweeted that what Zinke said was racist. “Nope,” she tweeted. “Racism is not OK.”

After the exchange at the hearing of the House’s Natural Resources Committee, Zinke said funding for the grants “probably got caught up” by larger 2018 budgetary items, and vowed to work with Hanabusa on the matter.

“I will look at it and I will work with you on it because I think it is important,” Zinke told her.

Hanabusa had framed the grant program as a necessity during the hearing.

“I sit before you the granddaughter of two internees. Both of my grandfathers were interned during World War II,” Hanabusa said. “It is essential that we as a nation recognize our darkest moments so that we don’t have them repeat again.”

Over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent were placed in internment camps during World War II in an effort to remove them from the West Coast. In one of the darkest moments in U.S. history, the administration of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fearing a Japanese invasion after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, issued Executive Order 9066 calling for the relocation of Japanese-Americans to the camps.

The camps, which were infamous for their poor conditions and harsh treatment, were overseen by the Interior Department. In 1988, more than 40 years after the first camp was built, the U.S. government formally apologized for the internment, offering a payment of $20,000 to each camp survivor.

Despite the internment, thousands of Japanese-Americans would fight at the time in segregated units operating in the European theater during World War II. One such unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, is the most highly decorated fighting unit for its size and duration in U.S. history.