Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke responded in Japanese to a Hawaii lawmaker’s question about grants to preserve the history of Japanese-American confinement in World War II.
The awkward exchange occurred during a House budget hearing for the Interior Department. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a Democrat from Hawaii, asked Zinke about the fate of a program called the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant, which was funded in 2017 and president has proposed to cut in 2018.
“I did not find out about the fact that my grandfather was interned on Oahu for a lot of the wartime until he was eightysomething years old because they didn’t speak about it,” she said, noting that these grants are used to spread awareness and education about this history.
“So Mr. Secretary ... even with the president zeroing it out, are you committed to continue the grants program?” she asked. “Will we see it funded again in 2018?”
He replied with a Japanese greeting, saying “Konnichiwa,” meaning “good afternoon.”
“I think it’s still ‘Ohayo gozaimasu,’ but that’s okay,” Hanabusa replied, referring to the Japanese phrase for “good morning.” Zinke then agreed to look into the budget in question.
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono criticized Zinke’s comments on Twitter. “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,” she tweeted.
She wasn’t alone. “I was outraged,” said Karen Korematsu, founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, which has been funded by the grant program in question, “first by Secretary Zinke’s disrespect to Rep. Hanabusa and second to his ignorance to teaching the lessons of American history.”
Hanabusa’s office and the Interior Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.