It’s been a big political week here in the Hawkeye State what with the canoodling video, resignation, leadership elections and general funnel merriment. But, sometimes, it’s the little indignities of politics — the stuff that too often gets lost in the shuffle — that make my head spin.
One of those moments was on display Thursday during a U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources hearing when Rep. Colleen Hanabusa questioned Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the Trump administration’s plans to eliminate funding for a grant program that documents and preserves the experiences of Japanese Americans detained during World War II.
The grant program — Japanese American Confinement Sites, or JACS — is personal to Hanubusa, as she explained at the hearing:
“I sit before you, the granddaughter of two internees. Both of my grandfathers were interned during World War II — one in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one in a place called Honouliuli in Hawaii, which people did not know about,” she said.
“This president’s budget zeros out what is, I think, a really nominal amount to your whole budget. It’s about $2 million dollars.”
Hanabusa asked Zinke if he was committed to supporting JACS.
The U.S. Secretary of the Interior replied to this line of questioning by a duly elected member of the House of Representatives with a smile and two words: “Oh, konnichiwa.”
That’s a greeting in Japanese that roughly translates as “good afternoon,” and the shocked expression of an audience member caught by CBS News staffer Alan He highlights the awkward indignity of the moment.
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“I think it’s still ‘ohayo gozaimasu,’ but that’s OK,” Hanabusa responded flatly, using the proper Japanese morning greeting.
Maybe it was just social awkwardness. I actually hope it is social awkwardness, even as my gut recoils from the suggestion. And, it isn’t just my stomach in knots.
U.S. Rep. Judy Chu tweeted that Zinke should apologize. “No better example of why we need continued support for historical sites where the rights of Japanese Americans were violated b/c of race. Zinke’s comment betrayed a prejudice that being Asian makes you a perpetual foreigner. Intentional or not, it’s offensive,” she wrote.
In a separate tweet, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono labeled the response “flippant & juvenile.”
At the time this column was filed early Friday morning, Zinke had not issued an apology.
Run through the National Park Service, which Zinke’s agency oversees, JACS is in a battle against time. David Inoue, JACS executive director, told NBC News that many of their preservation efforts involve those who were incarcerated at the sites, “and a lot of those people are dying right now.”
Thousands of Japanese Americans were held by the U.S. government during WWII. President Ronald Reagan, in 1988, signed the Civil Liberties Act, which granted reparations to those interned, and formally apologized for the program.
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