Conservative columnists and bloggers in the U.S. castigated President Obama for bowing to the Japanese Emperor during his visit to the island nation earlier this month.
Yet, a recent editorial in the English-language newspaper The Japan Times argues that the gesture was seen positively in Japan:
American diplomacy is never without controversy, but who would have imagined that the standard protocol of a bow to the Japanese Emperor from U.S. President Barack Obama would have caused such a fuss?
Apparently, many right-wing critics in America complained that Mr. Obama bowed too low to the Emperor. Those America-centric conservatives took Mr. Obama’s bow as a signal of America’s weakness. Japan and most of the rest of the world saw that bow for what it was — a sincere gesture of respect and a step toward healthier relations.
Those who know Japanese culture even a little would not interpret this type of bow as subservience, much less as any indication of America’s low status on the world stage. In Japan, bowing is as natural as taking off one’s shoes when entering a home, though with more profound meanings. The conservative American critics of Mr. Obama would surely have found fault no matter how deep he bowed.
The arrival of a U.S. president who is aware of the importance of symbolic meanings and diplomatic gestures comes as a relief to most countries after the Bush administration’s scarcity of interaction on any but its own terms.
As Mr. Obama well knows, a bow could have many different meanings within Japanese culture. It can be an everyday greeting, a simple thanks or a deep apology. Mr. Obama’s bow carried less of these meanings than it did a sense of engagement. Stepping into another country’s cultural complexities shows strength of character and self-assurance. Unlike the “cowboy diplomacy” of the former Bush administration, Mr. Obama clearly recognizes cultural realities…
In fact, Mr. Obama’s gesture was not delivered as smoothly as are most of his speeches, which have become popular English-language study materials in Japan. Shaking hands at the same time as bowing nearly 45 degrees combines East and West in an uneasy single gesture. Usually, when East meets West, a bow precedes a handshake, or vice versa, or one is simply dispensed with.
No matter, most Japanese probably would not know the correct way to bow to the Emperor either, and the politeness inherent in his gesture is the key point. Mr. Obama’s bow also indicated recognition that Japan is a unique and sovereign country that holds a large proportion of U.S. government bonds.
Another momentous stop on his Asian tour was the world’s other massive economy, and another major holder of U.S. bonds — China. Mr. Obama’s bow, then, certainly demonstrated a pragmatic element that extends to Asia more broadly. Mr. Obama brought a practical agenda to the tour and a desire to reaffirm connections with Asian governments and Asian economies. The way forward in Asia will only come through sustained and fair-minded negotiations that involve all the region’s countries.
The Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, undertaken with blind disregard for those cultures’ realities, are unlikely to serve as a model for economic revitalization or cultural exchange, much less for spreading democracy. More important than small gestures is the harder work of concrete decisions and sensible actions. Finding common agreements that mutually benefit all countries in the Asian region is now the main focus. Bowing was the easy part.
Blogger Brad Rice reports that the Japanese were so enamored of the U.S. president that they coined a new Japanese verb obamu — to proceed optimistically despite challenging obstacles.
News footage on YouTube of President Obama’s bow to the Japanese Emperor