Monday, November 16, 2009

Bowing and scraping

News item: On his trip to Asia, U. S. President Barack Obama makes a stop in Japan where he meets with Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Obama's bow sparked controversy in the U.S. and throughout Asia. (Reuters photo.)

In Japan, there are - essentially - three different kinds of bows. The kind Obama is exhibiting to the Emperor is one associated with making a deep, deep apology. Only two other kinds of bowing - a kneeling version and one where the person bowing actually gets down and touches their head to the ground - are deeper/more profound (usually also signaling submission).

The gesture our president makes is interesting on several levels:
  • First, to bow that far/at that angle, is only done as a sign of apology/regret.
  • People of equal/superior standing simply nod (which is why the Emperor is not shown bowing in return).
  • It is considered offensive to do the bow & shake combo. Men bowing are expected to keep hands at their sides, women clasped in front (as the Empress appears to be exhibiting).
Is he apologizing for something? Some of his press conference focused on his views toward the atomic bombings of WWII. Was he sending a signal? If not, then how does "the smartest man who ever moved into the White House make this kind of mistake?" According to John Batchelor, his source, Mary Kissel (in Hong Kong - editor of The Wall Street Journal Asia's editorial page), said "the bow to the Japanese Emperor Akihito was bizarre and puzzled Asia." Oh, great, just what we need...

Of course, his bowing to foreign leaders is not without precedent. Below, he bows to the king of Saudi Arabia...(In that instance, it was not viewed as an apology by as a sign of him paying fealty to Saudi King Abdullah.)

Out of respect or as a sign of fealty?

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