Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Saturday dismissed criticism of his use of the remark "konnichiwa" to address a congresswoman of Japanese descent when she asked him about funding to preserve World War II internment camps.
Zinke's remark drew immediate backlash on social media. On Saturday, he doubled down on his comments.
“How could ever saying ‘Good morning’ be bad?” Zinke told reporters following a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The controversy arose Thursday, when Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hi., asked whether Zinke would continue a National Park Service grant program that preserves the history of sites where the American government incarcerated nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans, forcing them from their homes in California, western Oregon and Washington and southern Arizona.
It was the single largest forced relocation in U.S. history, according to the National Park Service website. Hanabusa's grandfathers were held in such camps.
After Hanabusa asked if the program would be funded, Zinke responded, “Oh, konnichiwa.”
The remark drew stunned responses from some in the room, according to media reports, and criticism from lawmakers and civic groups who said the reply was insensitive and perpetuated stereotypes.
Hanabusa denounced Zinke's response in a series of tweets Saturday.
"When @SecretaryZinke 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," she wrote. "It is racial stereotyping."
She called on people to contact Zinke and urge him to fund the grant program.
"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," tweeted Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hi.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said in a statement, “Rather than greet her like he would any other Member of Congress, he responded to her as if she did not speak any English. Whether intentional or not, his comments invoke the offensive stereotype that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners regardless of how long their families have lived in the United States.”