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. ♦
Jay Remer says
This article is aptly titled. I have read with great interest all of the opinions people have taken the time to express and make public through a variety of channels. This takes some effort and indicates that this is a mater of interest. I have not yet seen any mention of the fundamental principle which overrides all guidelines and rules of protocol and is demonstrated in many instances where protocol is broken or the rules are bent. That principle is intent. What was the president’s intent? He was, to me, showing his natural way of showing respect to a great man. Although strict protocol dictates that no head of state bows to another, this guideline in today’s climate can and was relaxed appropriately and with no feelings of subservience by either gentleman. I seriously doubt either is losing sleep over this. I would hope that they have more pressing matters with which to occupy their thoughts.
As a seasoned, global, financial executive, I am disappointed by the president’s obvious breach of protocol. Clearly the gesture was one sided, and bowing deeply in Japan is ABSOLUTELY a sign of subservience. The White House protocol officer should be fired for allowing this to happen. And as for the Japanese media sweeping this under the rug, it is naive to think this is because they didn’t think it important. You can be assured that the “decision” not to run the picture was meant to allow us to save face.
This was NOT protocol for 2 reasons:
1. The President’s bowing actually breaks protocol. Prior protocol has been that American dignitaries shake hands & occasionally offer a very slight bow. Not a deep one that breaks eye contact & suggests subservience. The original L.A. Times blog post includes pictures supporting this.
– The State Department & New York Times also agree according to the June 14, 1994 Times article “The President’s Inclination: No, It Wasn’t a Bow-Bow”
2. The video shows Emperor Akihito approaching President Obama with his arm extended for a handshake. Our President breaks protocol again by bowing & shaking simultaneously, abnormal in Japanese culture.
Plus, Emperor Akihito did NOT return the bow. Had he returned the bow, this would have been a positive display of mutual respect. Because he did not, this becomes a disturbing show of one-sided deference inappropriate for our President in the face of a foreign leader.
I sincerely wish that this time the foreign official our nation’s leader bowed to had returned the same courtesy & respect. Bowing is a common gesture in the Japanese culture, & one the Emperor should have initiated or returned without hesitation (especially as he’s the 1st Emperor not considered divine).
The first incident (with the Saudi King) may have been impulsive or simply a poor decision by President Obama & can be easily overlooked. Everyone makes mistakes. But Americans NEED to know that our President is building relationships of mutual admiration, not simply kowtowing from a subservient position and constantly apologizing for past mistakes while ignoring all the good America has simultaneously done.