Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke defended his "konnichiwa" response to a Japanese-American congresswoman by suggesting it was an "appropriate salute" given he has "friends that were Japanese families" who lived through the US internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
"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 News in an interview Monday.
"I've been to the Japanese War College at Etajima and saying 'konnichiwa' past 10 o'clock as a greeting, I don't think it's any different than greeting anybody else in a language that's respectful. I grew up in Montana saying 'good morning,' saying good afternoon.' I think it's an appropriate salute."
In March, Zinke faced criticism for greeting Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, with the Japanese word for "good day" or "good afternoon" during a congressional hearing. Hanabusa had shared a story about her grandfathers' detention in the internment camps and asked Zinke about funding to maintain the historic sites.
"Oh, konnichiwa," Zinke said in response to Hanabusa. Zinke's remark was derided by Asian-American lawmakers as "flippant" and "blatantly insensitive."
At the time, Zinke defended his comment, telling reporters, "How could ever saying 'good morning' be bad?"
On Tuesday, Hanabusa responded on Twitter to Zinke's comments to Breitbart News, saying he "continues to miss the point."
"This is racial stereotyping. Does he greet others in their ancestral language?" she said. "This mentality led to a period in American history that saw 120,000 men, women and children, including my grandfathers, sent to internment camps after WWII."
Democratic Rep. Judy Chu of California, another Asian-American lawmaker, also took issue with Zinke's latest remarks.
"Zinke still doesn't get it. The problem with saying 'konichiwa' wasn't the time of day," Chu wrote Tuesday on Twitter. "It was that he singled out the one Congressmember with Japanese heritage. At that moment, he saw her ethnicity, not her position."