Secretary’s ‘flippant’ Japanese comment draws backlash on social media

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Rude and disrespectful. 

That’s what many people are calling U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s response to U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D, Hawaii, during a hearing Thursday.

In almost any other situation, Zinke’s response might have been brushed off, but his off-hand remark to Hanabusa has social media buzzing and many shaking their heads.

Hanabusa was describing how her grandfather was imprisoned during WWII in a Japanese internment camp. 

She was asking about the future of $2 million in grant money preserving those historical sites.

“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, I believe as the Japanese American Confinements Sites Program, which were funded in 2017? Would we see it funded again in 2018?” Hanabusa said.

Zinke’s response,”Konnichiwa.”

After a long silence, Hanabusa responded, “I think it’s still ohayo gozaimasu, but that’s okay.”

Members of the audience were clearly shocked at Zinke’s comment. One woman, seated behind Zinke, looked up with her mouth dropped open in awe.

The backlash can be seen all over social media.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D, Hawaii, tweeted:

“The internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans is no laughing matter, @SecretaryZinke.”

Carole Hayashino, president of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, said she couldn’t believe what she heard.

“To treat what is called one of the darkest chapters in American history so lightly, with a sense of humor, it’s innappropriate,” Hayashino said.

Hayashino said the Zinke’s comment demonstrates how much work there needs to be done. 

“Even after 75 years, three, four, five generations of being in the United States, persons of Japanese ancestry are still perceived as foreigners. I find that shocking and appalling,” Hayashino said.

On Saturday, Hanabusa released a statement on the exchange:

“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.” 

Please contact Secretary Zinke and urge him to restore funding for the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program (Public Law 109-441, 120 Stat. 3288) :

Please Call — (202) 208-3100 and press 3 to reach Secretary Zinke’s Office or reach out online: https://www.doi.gov/contact-us

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