Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke defended his use of the Japanese greeting “konnichiwa” when responding to a question from a lawmaker.
Zinke told reporters Saturday that the phrase is innocent and inoffensive.
“How could ever saying ‘good morning’ be bad?” he said during his tour of the U.S.-Mexico Border in Arizona.
Zinke took heat last week after he said “konnichiwa” to a Japanese American congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, who quizzed him over funding for the Japanese American Confinement Sites program.
“Will we see it funded again in 2018?," Rep. Hanabusa, asked Zinke last week.
"Oh, Konnichiwa," Zinke replied, sparking uproar among some lawmakers, civic groups and on social media who perceived the use of the phrase as perpetuating negative stereotypes about Japanese Americans.
"I think it's still 'ohayo gozaimasu,' but that's okay," Hanabusa corrected Zinke with a greeting normally used in the morning.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., called on Zinke to apologize for the remark: “Zinke's comment betrayed a prejudice that being Asian makes you a perpetual foreigner. Intentional or not, it's offensive. He should apologize.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, also criticized the interior secretary.
“How could ever saying ‘good morning’ be bad?”
“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,” Hirono tweeted.
Hanabusa issued a statement on Saturday, saying “the real issue here is that the administration ignored one of the most racially motivated periods in American history by defunding the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program.”
“When Secretary Zinke 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 said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.