Obama’s bow not so bad?

December 6, 2009

President Obama was roundly criticized and mocked when, on his trip to Japan last month, he bowed low before Emperor Akihito:

For example, in an article at BigGovernment.com, Warner Todd Huston wrote that the bow was a particularly self-debasing one that even embarrassed our Japanese hosts and was representative of an overall failure of the summit meeting:

Before we get to his other multiple fluffs and diplomatic errors, let’s explain what Obama was telling the Japanese people with his absurdly low bow. The sort of bow that Obama made is almost that of a “dogeza” bow. This is a sort of bow that is so low as to be considered a prostrated position. It is seen as an apology, a supplication, not a sign of respect. So, as we see, Obama once again showed that he wants to be known as the less-than president, that he is representing a prostrated people, and that he feels that to everyone he meets overseas he must apologize for this horrible U.S.A.

The inappropriate bow, however, wasn’t the only mistake that Obama committed in Japan. According to the mainstream Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun the visit was termed “miserable,” and “the worst US-Japan summit meeting in history” by Japanese insiders. Worse, the Japanese government was so upset at the visit that it retaliated at various points issuing slights right back to President Obama during his stay on Japanese soil.

As fortune would have it, however, I could check this story and analysis for myself: a friend teaches English in Japan and has been there for a couple of years, now, so I thought I’d ask him how the bow was seen there and how representative of Japanese opinion Shukan Bunshun really was. His reply was as follows:

So I had never heard of this mainstream weekly they refer to, but seeing as how I don’t read many Japanese magazines I decided to ask around. I started with some English teachers and then worked my way up to asking Social Studies teachers and they all gave me the same answer: they had heard of it but had never read it themselves. One Social Studies teacher even went so far as to say that, “no normal person would read something like that.” So while I don’t doubt that the publication made such remarks, it is definitely not an accurate portrayal of Japanese opinion.

In fact, most news stations out here were pretty much wooed by Obama’s visit, and practically everyone I talk to is rather satisfied regarding his visit.

Also, another glaring mistake that the article makes is in reference to Obama’s bow. The “dogeza” that they mention is an actual prostration where you kneel on the ground and bow. Obama’s bow was nothing of the sort, and if anything, was very polite and made no reference of kowtowing or inferiority. In fact, in Japan, being humble like that is a sign of strength. They have an old saying that says “even grains of rice bow their head.” Meaning that something as powerful as Japan’s staple food is humble enough to bow lowly (stalks of rice actually do bow down because the rice grains are too heavy for the stalks to support).

Though, an amateur mistake that Obama made was shaking hands while bowing. It’s one or the other.

Emphasis added.

To be honest, it seems we on the Right hyperventilated a bit at the bow. Fair enough. Consider it a mild case of Obama Derangement Syndrome. I still don’t think he should have bowed, however.  As pointed out in several places, heads of state do not bow to each other, because it’s interpreted in diplomacy as a sign of deference and inferiority, not as a meeting of equals. Also, in the specific American context, the President heads a republic founded in an anti-monarchical revolution and that at its birth loudly proclaimed the principle that all men are created equal. He should never bow to a monarch, as The New York Times itself observed in a similar situation.

So, the bow, while evidently fine in Japan, was still a gaffe. Just not a total facepalm moment.