Obama’s bowing as diplomatic protocol?

The President was in town yesterday for an official visit to Japan.

The thing that seems to be making news is the fact that he made a deep bow to Emperor Akihito. It’s claimed that no one holding the high federal office has ever done this. And a certain amount of controversy is swirling around it.

Here is the picture:

president bows to emperor

The Empress is standing there maybe a bit amazed, like Obama’s the Maneki Neko Duck from the AFLAC commercial. “Sugoi, Obama-san!”

Was this one bow too many?


Well, on the one hand, the Emperor of Japan is the “symbol” of the country. He has no direct political power. Additionally, his reign, so to speak, has come at the United States’ own express volition, in the 1940’s. There would be no “Emperor of Japan” except that the United States helped arrange things after World War II so that the Emperor, if not the “Emperor System”, would continue.

So Obama was giving a show of respect to an important state and religious figure of a country called, from time to time, America’s most critical ally in the Pacific. (Whether the parties act like it or not, ehem . . ) And doing it in a way that showed a knowledge and appreciation of the local culture.

But on the other hand, Obama is the President of the United States. And so by this reasoning, he represents all the Americans. Historically, the United States President didn’t bow to anybody. Since bowing historically has also represented a sign of inferiority or submission.

If any American citizen bows to the Emperor of Japan, well, that’s one thing. After all, he’s like a royalty, and most Americans aren’t (even if they act like they are).

Dick Cheney didn’t bow to the Emperor. But then again, he’s an asshole.

In a time when we have a new government here making confetti out of former commitments, and playthings of our negotiators, is it a good idea for the President to go around Tokyo bowing to people?

Even if they happen to be the Emperor?

But the flipside, again: What harm, really? It’s a friendly, respectful greeting, at a time when things are a little more tense between the two countries then they usually have been in the postwar era.

So I dunno. I kind-of wish he hadn’t, and I am an Obama supporter. I mean, if the Emperor visited Washington, he probably wouldn’t bow. I don’t think Nixon ever bowed to Hirohito (a/k/a the Showa Emperor), or Hirohito to anyone. [But see UPDATE below.] Did Hirohito bow to MacArthur? Probably not.

I pin this one on another screw-up of the Embassy. There is probably someone attached to it who is the expert on bowing culture and protocol. And they should have been on hand to advise the President with good advice. But it’s the same lackluster sh*t instead.

They speak the two languages, and so all the rest is gravy. I suppose they see it like that.

What I wonder is whether a precedent is being set with all these presidential cultural sensitivities. Now, whenever a future president meets the Emperor of Japan, does he have to bow, too? What if he doesn’t? What happens the next time Obama is back, and he doesn’t?

If Akihito goes to Washington, does he bow?

Did not observing traditions actually imply an insult to Japan’s traditions? If the President really isn’t supposed to bow, and he does, does it imply that the President doesn’t take the culture surrounding the local traditions seriously? The Casual American, who can be pointed at just as conspicuously as the so-called “Ugly American”?

This all started when a former president started saluting. You’re not supposed to salute unless you’re in uniform. And the President is not required to salute at all of course.

But I think Reagan started doing the salute for effect. And then they all later picked that up. And then one of them (Bush junior) started wearing that goofy flag pin, quasi-fascist style. (Meaning, it was worn like it was a required item of dress like in Nazi Germany). Now, you see all elected officials wearing one.

And now we have bowing, too.

I have to think about this a bit more.

[UPDATE: A website called “The New Nixon” had this to post this weekend:

nixon and hirohito2

This is Nixon meeting with Emperor Hirohito in Alaska, on the Showa Emperor’s first trip to America. Without seeing the reel, I have a hard time telling if this is the “businessman’s bow” for either man. It could be Hirohito moving closer to hear what the President was saying, and the American president (usually a tall man in history, by the way,) making level eye-contact.

Nixon’s hands are at his sides, but he was sort of a stiff fellow as things went, anyway.

2 thoughts on “Obama’s bowing as diplomatic protocol?

  1. There was maybe six smaller bows after it–he kept going up, down, up, down. But maybe that was more trying to make level eye contact.

  2. I’ve met the Emperor in one of those photo op situations (no, I did not get to speak to him nor did I even get close to him for a photo).

    However, the palace does have a “protocol officer” (I forget his exact title), who educated all of us to the “protocol” should we end up in a situation (unlikely) where we’d actually meet him or say a few words.

    The protocol, as explained to us, was that non-Japanese always handshake. The Emperor does not bow to non-Japanese nor does he expect to be bowed to by non-Japanese (due to historical diplomacy symbolism).

    The protocol office also said (I’m massively paraphrasing here, and it was in Japanese 15 years ago) “but if you mess up, don’t worry about it. That’s why I’m here. Just do your best to be polite. And fast. The Emperor unfortunately does not have time to engage in chit-chat with all 60 of you.”

    I guess if you’re President of the United States, you get to skip the lecture from the imperial protocol officer. The Prez’s a busy man. I understand.

    Two points to the emperor for being gracious enough to “just go with it” and not get awkward and stiff or embarrass President Obama when he decided to wing it regarding the greeting. I’m sure it’s not the first time non-Japanese have messed up on the protocol. I’ve seen somebody non-Japanese from my own place of employment do The Bow.

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s the intention that counts, even if he screwed up the official protocol. Nobody believes that Obama thinks either he or the US is subservient to the constitutional Emperor or Japan. It does not ever cause a diplomatic incident.

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