Zinke’s ‘Konnichi Wa’ Controversy Shows Need For Cultural National Monuments

On Memorial Day, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appeared on Breitbart Radio, where he expressed support for President Donald Trump’s border wall and defended his controversial decision to send Interior staff to the border. He also went out of his way to double-down on shocking, offensive comments he made to Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) during a recent congressional hearing.

After the congresswoman shared her personal story of her grandfathers’ World War II incarceration and made an impassioned request for funding for the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, Zinke responded to her with a grin and a “konnichi wa.” In the radio interview, Zinke justified his remarks by explaining that he “has friends that were Japanese families” who lived through internment.

But his glib response caused me to wonder — was he listening to what the congresswoman was saying?  Is he familiar with the history behind the national parks and national monuments of Honouliuli, Manzanar, Minidoka and Tule Lake? Is he aware of the history of the roundup and incarceration of innocent Japanese Americans from the West Coast and selective imprisonment of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i?

To make matters worse, Zinke has repeatedly told staff that diversity does not matter and is not a priority for the Department of Interior, according to employees in the department. Meanwhile, in Zinke’s restructuring of the Interior Department, Native American senior officials were disproportionately reassigned.

Zinke’s repeated offenses reinforce the need for continued funding for programs like JACS. JACS was created in 2006 with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush and aims to educate and preserve the sites and stories of the Japanese American incarceration. In light of the current political climate, the lessons to be gleaned from this dark chapter in American history are more vital than ever.

Unfortunately, Zinke’s disrespectful attitude is not an isolated incident. The Trump administration and Zinke recently took unprecedented action to undermine national monuments across the country. These national monuments, protected using a law championed by Teddy Roosevelt called the American Antiquities Act, help tell the stories of all Americans and ensure future generations understand events that occurred in our nation’s history. This includes the Honouliuli National Monument, commemorating the Honouliuli Internment Camp, Hawai‘i’s largest and longest-operating prisoner of war camp during and after WWII that the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i helped to protect.

While no changes to the Honouliuli National Monument have been proposed, Trump and Zinke have slashed protections for the Bears Ears National Monument, which is a landscape sacred to the Native American tribes that advocated for its protection, as well as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in southern Utah. This is unacceptable. Our national monuments must be protected to preserve our shared American history and tell the stories of all Americans regardless of their race, color or creed. If protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante can be slashed as Trump and Zinke believe they can, then every national monument and the stories they tell are at risk.

We all must stand together and protect our national monuments, historical and sacred sites and the programs that tell their stories — whether it’s the JACS Grant Program that preserves the history of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was established to preserve “natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans,” or our national monuments.

These places are important to our shared national heritage, our public lands and to all of us as Americans. They should be supported by Zinke, not denigrated.


Carole Hayashino is the president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i, a nonprofit organization that strives to share the history, heritage and culture of the Japanese American experience in Hawai‘i, and she also served as associate director of the National Japanese American Citizens League, where she was involved in the national legislative effort for redress and reparations for Americans of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II.

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