Zinke cites ‘friends that were Japanese’ in defending 'konichiwa' greeting

Interior secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior shortlist puts focus on New Mexico lawmakers | Progressives criticize Biden transition over volunteer who represented Exxon | Trump DOJ appointees stalled investigation into Zinke: report Trump DOJ appointees stalled investigation into Zinke: report GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race MORE is defending a greeting he gave to a Japanese-American member of Congress that was criticized at the time by Asian-Americans, telling a radio station Monday that he believes the comment was "appropriate" based on having had “friends that were Japanese.”

In an interview with Breitbart Radio on Monday, Zinke defended saying “konichiwa” to Rep. Colleen HanabusaColleen Wakako HanabusaHawaii New Members 2019 Ige wins second term as Hawaii governor The Hill's Morning Report — Trump heads to New York to shore-up GOP districts MORE (D-Hawaii) during a House Natural Resources Committee in March.


“I grew up in a little logging, timber town, railroad town in Montana and a lot of my family lived through the years of the internment camps. I’ve long since had friends that were Japanese families that went through that,” he told Breitbart Radio.

Zinke added that he thought it was an “appropriate greeting."

“I’ve been to the Japanese War College at Etawah Jima and saying 'konichiwa' past ten o’clock as a greeting, I don’t think it’s any different than greeting anybody else in a language that’s respectful," he said. "I grew up in Montana saying ‘good morning,’ saying ‘good afternoon.’ I think it’s an appropriate salute.”

When Zinke originally made the comment, Hanabusa had told him she had recently learned about her family’s ties to Japanese internment camps. Hanabusa was questioning Zinke during the congressional hearing about planned cuts to grant programs that fund institutions that focus on the history of Japanese-Americans, particularly during World War II. 

“I believe it is essential that we as a nation recognize our darkest moments so we don’t have them repeat again,” she concluded as part of a longer statement.

“Oh, konnichiwa,” Zinke said in response.

Hanabusa released a statement after news of Zinke's interview on Breitbart Radio. 

“Secretary Ryan Zinke continues to miss the point. This is racial stereotyping. And this is racial stereotyping that occurred while I questioned him about funding to preserve and protect Japanese internment sites in my capacity as a member of Congress. Does he greet other members of Congress in their ancestral language? This mentality led to a dark period in American history that saw 120,000 men, women and children, including my grandfathers, sent to internment camps during WWII,” Hanabusa said.

“We must never forget the injustice of the Japanese internment. We can never again allow our country to imprison its people because of their ancestry, not because they committed a crime. Racial stereotyping should never be a part of policy making. I urge all Americans to ignore the divisive rhetoric, racial insensitivity, and dishonesty that too often seeps out of Trump and his administration. America is a nation of immigrants, defined by our diversity and we are stronger, together.”

Following Zinke’s comments at the hearing, a number of other members of Congress criticized the secretary, calling the remark "flippant and juvenile" and demanding he apologize.

Responding to his comments at the time, Rep. Judy ChuJudy May ChuHouse Democrats urge congressional leaders to support .1B budget for IRS Democratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief DHS opens probe into allegations at Georgia ICE facility MORE (D-Calif.) said Zinke’s wording was offensive whether he meant it to be or not.

"No better example of why we need continued support for historical sites where the rights of Japanese Americans were violated b/c of race," Chu wrote.

"Zinke's comment betrayed a prejudice that being Asian makes you a perpetual foreigner. Intentional or not, it's offensive. He should apologize," she added.

Thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned in the U.S. by the government during World War II. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, formally apologizing for the program and granting $20,000 in compensation to any Japanese-American interned during the war.

Updated: 9:28 p.m.