Last weekend, during a trip to Asia that was designed to build U.S. influence in the area, President Obama bowed to Japan’s Emperor Akihito. This single action caused a storm of controversy. Responses have been polarized, divided down party lines. Obama’s Republican critics say it was a sign of subservience, and the president was showing weakness. The State Department, however, has stressed that “the president was simply showing respect.”
Experts on Japanese customs have admitted that Obama did bow a bit too deeply. Additionally, shaking hands while bowing, which Obama did with Akihito, is not strictly traditional, though it is a common practice among Japanese business people, especially when working with Westerners.
We don’t think Obama’s bow showed deference to Japan. It seems the Japanese, judging from what has appeared in its media, does not think so either. Some papers have avoided running the photo of the bow.
Instead of flaunting this as a sign of weakness, the papers are sweeping this under the rug, as they seem to want to make the president look as good as possible. According to The Guardian, etiquette experts in Japan have praised the president’s efforts, while an Imperial Household Agency spokesman said the greeting looked “natural and appropriate.”
So at worst, this incident was a cultural faux pas — but made with the best of intentions.
Many conservatives don’t see it this way. Some have melodramatically called the action treasonous.
Adding to the overblown negativity is former Vice President Dick Cheney, who met Akihito in 2007 and did not bow to the emperor but instead shook his hand. Cheney told Politico.com, “There is no reason for an American President to bow to anyone. Our friends and allies don’t expect it, and our enemies see it as a sign of weakness.”
Cheney sure didn’t raise this much of a stink when former President George W. Bush, observing a cultural etiquette, greeted Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah with a kiss. Bush has also held the King’s hand on occasion.
We see nothing wrong with Obama’s or Bush’s efforts in being culturally aware. They set a good example in following the philosophy of: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Cheney and many other conservatives are just grasping for ways to undermine the president. Political discourse is great when it’s well thought out and intelligent. This griping over a bow is ridiculous and petty.
Lastly, a cultural faux pas is not an excuse for casual racism, which has run rampant in blogs and op-eds.
Washington Times editor emeritus Wesley Pruden crossed a line in his column, published Nov. 16. He wrote, “It’s no fault of the president that he has no natural instinct or blood impulse for what [America] is about. He was sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World, and reared by grandparents in Hawaii.”
What is most disturbing is the echo of agreement from his throng of supporters. ♦