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November 15, 2009
Obama's botched bow
Bad enough that Obama bowed down to another head of state yesterday. Even worse, he did not bother to learn how one bows in Japan, and just winged it.
I agree with Scott Johnson, Steve Gilbert, Andrew Malcom, and many others that the President of the United States should not be bowing before any head of state. But unlike these astute observers, I actually know a little something about the art of the bow in Japan, having lived in Japan four different times on a resident visa, taught East Asian Studies at Harvard, and counseled many hundreds of American, European, Middle Eastern, and Australian executives on how to work and negotiate with the Japanese -- including teaching them the right way to bow.
Obama's bow (below) violates a fundamental precept: NO TOUCHING while bowing.
Here is one of many websites that illustrates how to bow in Japan. The one thing that virtually everyone who teaches bowing etiquette stresses is under no circumstance try to combine a bow with a handshake.
The Emperor appears to smile, which is something polite Japanese are taught to do when embarrassed. Unlike just about everyone who comes into the Emperor's presence, Obama obviously received no instruction on Imperial etiquette. (Note: The Japanese take their monarch and etiquette in general about 100 times more seriously than do the British.)
That's fine with me. I wouldn't like our president to receive such instructions from a foreign entity. But he obviously did not indicate to any of the American embassy staff, nor to any aides familiar with Japan that he intended to bow, and bow deeply. Anyone with about two days' familiarity with Japan knows about bowing. The average person in Japan bows dozens of times a day. You see it everywhere.
Another fundamental precept of the ordinary bow: it must be reciprocated. To do otherwise is a grave insult. Yet, we see in this short video clip that the Emperor did not even nod his head. To be honest, I am not sure the Emperor is ever supposed to bow back to anyone. He is, after all, according to Shinto, a god.
I suspect the poor Emperor was so shocked by the faux pas that he just pretended it didn't happen. That is one way Japanese people deal with breaches of etiquette, especially from the powerful, who are also ignorant. But the end result is that Obama has been snubbed royally. Imperially, in fact.
All in all, a disgrace. The only redeeming feature is that at least he did not bow his head and bend his knee, as he did with the Saudi monarch.
Charles Martin notes:
Here's Hu Jintao of China: a slight bow, about 10 degrees, just like Akihito.
Here's Vladimir Putin (who is a black belt in Judo and has years of experience with Japanese customers):
And compare the smile on Akihito's face in the Obama picture, and the other two. That's pretty much polite Japanese for "falling down laughing."
Update from Thomas Lifson: More pictures of heads of government greeting the
Emperor without any self-abasement here.