Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tone-deaf “konnichiwa” comment to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) certainly won’t gain him many supporters within the Asian-American community.
Multiple legislators and Asian-American civil rights groups have criticized his ill-timed greeting, which he offered at a Thursday congressional hearing after Hanabusa said that her grandfathers were among those imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), among others, swiftly condemned Zinke for his inappropriate remark.
Asian-American civil rights groups were also vocal in their criticism of Zinke. The Japanese American Citizens League released a statement shortly after the incident, pointing out that he was not only disrespectful of the congresswoman but that his comment reflected the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype ― the idea that Asian-Americans can never be “American enough.”
“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,” the league said. “Although not as brazen as General 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.”
The Go for Broke National Education Center, a nonprofit that preserves and shares the stories of Japanese-American veterans of World War II, echoed those sentiments in its own statement. Mitchell Maki, president and chief executive officer of the organization, said that Zinke’s remarks suggest an “inability to distinguish an American of Japanese ancestry from a citizen of Japan.”
Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an affiliation of five civil rights organizations, is now calling for the interior secretary to publicly apologize to Hanabusa. The group said he should have acknowledged Hanabusa’s family story and underscored that the “history of the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans is a shameful, dark moment in U.S. history that should be remembered as such by this administration.”
Zinke’s remarks reveal that he has yet to understand the gravity of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, according to Aarti Kohli, executive director of the affiliated group Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus.
“Secretary Zinke clearly does not understand his history. People have lost homes and jobs, and their lives have been shattered because of lies told to the Supreme Court that Japanese Americans were national security risks,” Kohli told HuffPost in an email. “We must ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes today, especially with this current Administration’s iterations of the Muslim Ban. We cannot make all encompassing statements about entire religions, cultures, and ethnicity.”
At Thursday’s hearing, just before Zinke made his comment, Hanabusa had been speaking about the future of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, which Congress established to preserve the sites of the prison camps where Japanese-Americans were incarcerated. The congresswoman had mentioned that President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget proposal, unveiled in February, would eliminate funding for the program.
After seeing Zinke’s flippancy over what was done to thousands to Americans during a dark time in U.S. history, civil rights groups agree that it’s all the more necessary to support the grant program.
“Secretary Zinke’s gaffe demonstrates how little we have learned from our history and why the administration must continue to fund these memorials,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice said in its statement.