The incident centers around Zinke’s tone-deaf reaction to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), whose grandfathers were incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II for their Japanese heritage. She said one of her grandfathers, a U.S. citizen, didn’t speak about the painful experience until much later in life.
Hanabusa shared the detail Thursday morning in a hearing with the interior secretary, seeking to persuade him to restore around $2 million in grant funds for organizations dedicated to preserving the memory of that ugly chapter in American history.
“I believe that it is essential that we as a nation recognize our darkest moments so that we don’t have them repeat again,” Hanabusa urged Zinke.
“My grandfather was born in Hawaii and is a citizen by birth,” Hanabusa noted during the hearing. Despite being a U.S. citizen, however, he was imprisoned in an Oahu camp called Honouliuli ― though the prisoners there used a different name: “jigokudani,” or “Hell’s Valley.”
After listening to her concerns, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Zinke responded to the U.S. representative with a cheery and extremely tone-deaf “Konnichiwa!”
The phrase ― which, let’s remember, Hanabusa’s grandfather imprisoned on Oahu was a U.S. citizen ― means “good afternoon” or “good day” in Japanese. If you’re wondering what sort of reaction it prompted from the audience, here’s a perfectly good summary:
A short yet painfully awkward silence followed, as indicated by the shocked woman in the above photo.
Hanabusa broke the tension with a terse, “I think it’s still ‘ohayo gozaimasu’ [good morning], but that’s OK.”
Several social media users, including many Asian-Americans, took to Twitter to express their disappointment over Zinke’s handling of a sensitive topic. Some labeled his choice of greeting as “racist”:
Hanabusa had been inquiring specifically about the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, which Congress established to preserve sites where Japanese-Americans were detained during World War II, a time of rampant anti-Japanese sentiment. As the congresswoman mentioned, Trump’s 2019 budget proposal, unveiled in February, would eliminate funding for the program ― a move widely criticized by Japanese-American activists.
“The JACS grant program is an important component of our country’s recognition of the egregious wrong that was done, and the need to remember and preserve that history so that it not be repeated,” the Japanese American Citizens League wrote in a statement.
Zinke did eventually answer Hanabusa’s question, telling her that “he’d look into” the issue.