Wednesday, 18 November 2009

I don't bow, therefore I am...

American conservative media, and not such conservative media too, are in a big flap at the moment, expressing outrage and disgust with President Obama's snivelling syncophancy, accusing him of demonstrating his inferiority, and thereby the inferiority of the US, in bowing to the Japanese emperor.

Some quotes
In Japan, the bow is seen as a sign of deep respect and deference to a superior. Basically, Obama acknowledged that he - and possibly the United States - is inferior to Japan and the Japanese Emperor.   A picture of Cheney with the Emperor shows how Americans would have rather seen the interaction take place. Cheney stood upright and tall. Neither Cheney - as the VICE PRESIDENT- or the Emperor - bowed. This showed that they seen each other as equals.

"We don't defer to emperors. We don't defer to kings or emperors. The president of the United States -- this coupled with so many apologies from the United States -- is just another thing," Bill Bennett. CNN

TOKYO, Japan – Upon arriving at the Imperial Palace yesterday for a private lunch, President Obama shook the hand of Emperor Akihito and gave a bow. The emperor did not return a bow.
followed by feedback such as
Anyone who makes excuses for Obama bowing to a defeated enemy is not an American. end of story.

It's problematic and rather vexing to read some sections of American media making political mileage out of a custom that they don't understand.  For one thing, bowing is the way people greet and acknowledge other people in Japan - and Obama was in Japan.  It's incredibly arrogant to presume the superiority of one's culture; I am American, I don't bow.   The commentators in question would probably also have no qualms about ordering a Big Mac in Hindu ashram or demanding a McPork burger and can of beer in Riyhad....  If it were put in an American context and a Japanese leader thought it beneath him/her to shake hands I doubt it would be considered acceptable.

Secondly the emperor did bow, but he is of much smaller stature than Obama.  Also the emperor is much older than Obama.   
Obama did look a bit clunky in the photo - but bowing isn't natural to most westerners.

I mentioned the controversy to Hiro this morning.  He was quite puzzled - what's the fuss. It's just nice manners in Japan.   I suspect most Japanese feel similarly - it didn't make the Japanese papers - though the controversy presumably will.   From here, Obama didn't look like social inferior, it's a pity the US media aren't a bit more open to broader understanding...

An email arrived in my inbox today with a link to an article in the examiner (US newspaper) that quotes from Japanese websites the bowing.   They speak volumes about the perception gap.

'What a bow!”
“Such a deep bow from Obama, what a fine guy.”
“I’m surprised he bowed. He’s really trying hard to meet the Japanese way!”
“President Obama is a top-class person, isn’t he? Amazing!”
“The Emperor is giving a nice smile!'
“Is the Japanese Emperor really that special?”
“The Emperor or the Pope, the President or the Prime Minister, whoever is greater is not something that I think can be decided objectively.”
“I laughed because it was a much better bow than I had imagined.”
“Obama’s huge!”
“Obama has more of a true Japanese heart than most Japanese do.”

There is irony in the  US taking bowing protocol much more seriously than the Japanese...

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