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November 30, 2009
Obama’s gracious bow receives thumbs-up in Japan

Obama’s popularity is high in Japan. Photo: Flickr user showbizsuperstar

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

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President Obama did the right thing. Oh, I know the rule: the President of the US is not supposed to bow to anybody. But the rule, if held to overly strictly, is simply no good.

Now since, as others have already pointed out, bowing is such an integral part of even modern Japanese culture, it was perfectly appropriate to set aside the rule in this case.

The real problem is that Americans — especially wacko conservative nit-pickers — have a tragically exaggerated sense of importance for the mindless literal interpretation of the rule.

Why, there isn’t even a proper word in American English for the righteous setting aside of the rule when the situation calls for it: even the word ‘dispensation’ doesn’t quite cut it.

But that is exactly what President Obama did. He set aside the rule, and he did so at the right time.


This attempt to shame the president for bowing when obviously he was merely trying to show respect and a knowledge of foreign cultures, like the furor over flag lapel pins a few years back, is clearly a malicious effort meant to draw attention away from and to trivialize the real stories in the news.

Please do a story on War-profiteering and let your viewers know which companies and individuals depend on organized terrorism (war) for profits. “American Conservatives” are merely pawns (tools?) for a highly-organized lobbying force created by international corporate greed.

Please indicate to which members of the American Congress, news organizations, and media outlets they donate money, and how much they spend annually on lobbying efforts.

Some obvious examples include Dick Cheney’s Halliburton/KBR, Raytheon, General Electric, IBM, McDonnell-Douglas, Xe/Blackwater, Caci, Titan/L3, Bell/Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, United Technologies, Science Applications International Corporation, CSC/DynCorp, Exxon/Mobil, Unocal, Chevron/Texaco, Bechtel, The Carlyle Group, PNAC, Citigroup, Goldman/Sachs, Yum! Brands, Shell Oil, Occidental Petroleum, British Petroleum, United Defense Industries, Military Professionals Resources Incorporated but the list is undoubtedly longer.

The office of president deserves respect and true conservatives don’t approve of such knavery.


Perfect demonstration of the blend that the current POTUS brings to the job since he shook hands too. West met East! Perfect candidate for the response to little green men’s demand: Take Me to Your Leader.


No authentic American would have done this greeting in this way as the differentiation of longstanding cultural technicalities does not negate the continuing need for maintaining the appropriate reservations and adherences to one’s country’s longstanding and (un) spoken diplomatic codes so long as one is in an official position. After retirement or leaving an official office, one could, then, do as one pleases…but not before.

And I am not what many call a “conservative”!

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