Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Americans, who lack general experience in bowing and curtsying, unlike folks who are subject to kings, emperors and whatnot, have a sort of ingrained antipathy toward self-humbling actions. Americans traditionally prefer the straightforward manly handshake, the ancient way of showing that one held no weapons, basically an expression of mutual distrust.

Thus the conservative outrage that Obama is bowing to the Japanese Emperor, on the imperial turf, no less, as though submitting to imperial authority. But it's clear that the outragers don't understand the true dimensions of bowing. Surprisingly, neither did Obama (who grew up in Hawaii where there is much Japanese tradition, or at least exposure to it), because in terms of bow language, the Obama effort - not being even in the bowing ballpark, so to speak - is essentially meaningless: a gibberbow.

Obama awkwardly bowing semi-deeply before the only slightly bowing emperor, while shaking the imperial hand in almost an upward direction, was seen on the news here but not too much; politely, it was not emphasized or dwelt upon. In other words, it was weird, but not offensive, as it might be if it were done by another Japanese or an Asian dignitary from a nation with a history of nobility. The Japanese, being such an intensely polite society, are old hands at forgiving the etiquette faults of foreigners (among the many cliches: soap in the bathwater, shoes in the house, chopsticks stuck in the rice, and on up the ladder of severity). Another mitigating factor is that the Japanese greatly admire Obama.

The unspoken puzzle that I'm sure is being privately pondered here, however, is why in the world Obama, a head of state who appears to be seriously fussy about the social niceties, didn't ask about and wasn't coached to the slightest extent on how to meet the Emperor: THAT is the big mystery. But from the Japanese perspective, it's part of the same big old mystery that the West has always been. Not to mention the vice-versaness of the situation.

What Obama should have done, if he wanted to bow, was to bow from the shoulders with hands held formally beside the thighs, as the Emperor is doing. Nixon, a practicing autoimperialist, got it right with Hirohito.

You have to admire Akihito though, who had clearly been expecting just a good old American handshake. He took the bizarre bowshake right in stride-- a real pro. When you’ve been bowed at as much as he has, you've seen it all.

w/thanks to Karen S. for the nudge...


Karen Sella said...

Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Bob, and educating me about bowing etiquette. Much obliged, as always, for the opportunity to learn here :)

R. Brady said...

My pleasure, Karen-- and again, thanks to you.

Tabor said...

I think I bow too deeply when meeting folks from your neck of the woods...but I do it quickly, so maybe I am forgiven.

Anonymous said...

Given the difference in height, maybe Obama was trying to get low enough for the handshake. Video would be nice - was each offering the other culture's accustomed greeting, or did Obama initiate both bow and handshake?

R. Brady said...

I finally saw a video of the bow event, and wrote an addendum in my next post.