U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke listens to questions during a tour of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in June 2017. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday used a Japanese greeting in response to a congresswoman’s question about preserving the history of Japanese American internment during World War II, drawing rebukes from lawmakers who said his remark was offensive.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, a fourth-generation American of Japanese ancestry, asked Zinke in a hearing whether he would continue a National Park Service grant program that funds research and preserves confinement sites where the government incarcerated as many as 120,000 people of Japanese descent. She said both of her grandfathers were internees.

“Are you committed to continue the grant programs that are identified, I believe, as the Japanese American Confinement Sites grants program, which were funded in 2017? Will we see them funded again in 2018?” Hanabusa asked.

“Oh, konnichiwa,” Zinke replied, using a Japanese greeting typically spoken in the afternoon.

After an awkward pause, Hanabusa corrected him.

“I think it’s still ‘ohayo gozaimasu,’ but that’s OK,” she said, using the phrase for “good morning.” Then she moved on.

Several of Hanabusa’s colleagues voiced outrage about the exchange after it circulated social media later in the day, saying Zinke had shown a profound insensitivity toward Asian Americans.

“Rather than greet her like he would any other Member of Congress, he responded to her as if she did not speak any English,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, said in a statement. “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.”

“My colleague asked Sec. Zinke about gov’t funding and received the response “Konnichiwa,’” Rep. Grace Meng, D-New York, wrote on Twitter. “This blatantly insensitive remark by @secretaryzinke is uncalled for and is not behavior that a cabinet secretary should exhibit.”

Others said it was especially inappropriate coming during a conversation about Japanese internment, under which the government forced innocent citizens into overcrowded and often unsanitary camps, separating families and seizing private property in the process.

“The internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans is no laughing matter,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who was born in Japan, wrote on Twitter. “What you thought was a clever response to @RepHanabusa was flippant and juvenile.”

An Interior Department spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment Friday morning.

Hanabusa said in Thursday’s hearing that one of her grandfathers was born in Hawaii when it was still a territory and was held in an internment camp in there during the Second World War. She didn’t find out about his incarceration until he was in his 80s, she said, because Japanese Americans “just did not speak about it.”

“And that’s been the problem that many face,” she told Zinke.

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2019 budget doesn’t seek funding – about $2 million in previous years – for the Japanese American Confinement Sites program, the goal of which is to study and preserve internment camps for the benefit of future generations.

Grants issued through the program have “kept this history alive,” Hanabusa said. “I believe that it is essential that we as a nation recognize our darkest moments so that we don’t have them repeat again.”

Zinke said funding for the program “probably got caught up” as the Interior Department was considering other budget items such as national park operations.

“I think it was an oversight in the budget,” he said. “I understand the importance of it to American history.”