Jonathan Dresner: About Obama's Bow

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Dresner teaches Asian and World history at Pittsburg State University and blogs at http://froginawell.net. He is an Editor at HNN.]

Via my old friend Scott Eric Kaufman I learned that President Obama’s visit to Japan was drawing criticism from the American right (I also learned that President Eisenhower bowed in public to a number of heads of state) due to Obama’s bowed greeting to Emperor Akihito.

Most of the commentary (this is an excellent roundup) hinges on whether it’s inappropriate for an American Head of State to bow to another Head of State. This is, of course, why Kaufman was noting Eisenhower’s bows, none of which were, apparently, mutual; other commenters have noted Clinton’s bow fifteen years earlier, and Nixon’s bow/handshake greeting with Emperor Hirohito. Some of the criticism is nuanced enough to note that mutual bows are appropriate greetings in Japan, but suggests that Obama’s bow was inappropriately deep and therefore servile and inappropriate.

Part of the problem in discussing this is the assumption that there is a stable protocol: Japan’s modern Imperial institution is younger than the American Republic, and interactions with other heads of state have always been somewhat improvisational. Before the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor didn’t meet heads of state. For centuries, the Emperor basically met nobody who wasn’t a member of the court aristocracy or high officials of the shogunal state: there was no public protocol except for a vague tradition that required the Emperor be above the gaze of anyone, not to be looked down upon. That tradition was revived in the Imperial era, but it wasn’t much guidance in dealing with modern crowds, photography, diplomatic visits. Even Meiji’s coronation ceremony was an innovation, purged of Chinese elements and enhanced with Shinto rituals. (See Keene, ch. 18) The first head of state to visit was Hawaiian King Kalakaua, but he was actually preceeded by a visit from former President U.S. Grant who greeted the Emperor with handshakes. Every time an aristocrat or diplomat met the Emperor, protocol had to be negotiated in advance, and it shifted over time: when and how much to bow, whether handshakes would be permitted, whether foreign women could enter the Emperor’s presence with their diplomat husbands, etc. But this wasn’t yet the great age of state visits: that doesn’t come until the 20th century, and the rise of air travel.

Before the next America presidential visit with a Japanese emperor, though, WWII intervened: the Japanese Emperor was demoted from sacred and inviolable to the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people. More importantly, perhaps, Japan became a neo-colonial extension of American power for a time (when that time ends is a matter of debate, of course) so that Presidential courtesies like Nixon’s bow were harmless to American power. By the time of Clinton’s gesture, though, Japan’s economic power was a threat to American dominance (well, with the 90s recession, not really, but pundits had spent a good portion of the ’80s talking up the Japanese threat, and the impression stuck), and the Imperial transition of 1989 took away the American sense that the Emperor was someone who had been defeated and disarmed. Even Clinton’s gesture towards a bow was too much for some, apparently: the very concept of monarchy raised spectres of pre-Revolutionary attitudes, though bowing is not necessarily a subservient act when done between equals (or by a superior) in the Japanese tradition.

Obama’s bow is a very formal one — formality and hierarchy are two different things — and in the context of a handshake. It doesn’t change the nature of the US-Japan relationship as much as the election of Japan’s new non-LDP PM, as much as the rising nationalistic culture, as much as the ongoing shifts in the economic relationship between two of the largest — and most obviously struggling — economies in the world.

Read entire article at Froginthewell (blog)

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More Comments:

Bob Harper - 11/21/2009

" a tiny body movement"? He was bent over close to 60 degrees, and Akihito bent not at all. To compare the obsequity evidenced here with the courtesy of President Eisenhower is ludicrous. In fact, the 'bow' to deGaulle would appear to be the act of looking at something on the ground rather than any obeisance. He exchanges an equal bow with the Pope, sans handshake. To Signora Gronchi he displays the courtesy of a gentleman, and I'm not sure the greeting he offers to Archkbishop Iakovos can be accounted a bow at all. To comare any of these to Barack Obama's actions before Akihito or King Abdullah is nonsensical. What's next, dipping the flag?

Bob Harper

Dale R Streeter - 11/19/2009

Correction, that should be aberration.

Dale R Streeter - 11/19/2009

Sure, by all means think it to be an aberation. Yet it's the second "mistake" he has made of this sort. He also bowed to the Saudi king. Now these can be blamed on nervousness, but the president is a poised and confident man, and he has the entire State Department (the office of protocol) to advise him on these matters. So what are we as citizens to conclude? You tell me.

M.D. Fulwiler - 11/19/2009

Oh, for heaven's sake. Can't people just accept that maybe the President was confused about proper protocol? I'm sure he meant well and we don't need to worry about him taking orders from Tokyo.

This administration is bad enough without people creating non-issues.

Dale R Streeter - 11/18/2009

Reciprocal bows between equals are a common sign of respect in Japan. A deep, obsequious bow from one to another is not, it is a declaration of inferiority. Don't you think the Japanese, of all people, recognized this impropriety? Even the empress looked embarrased.
Also, spare us the imposition of false alternatives. No one really believes that concern for the status of our president abroad is xenophobia or likely to lead to "ugly Americanism."

Thomas R. Cox - 11/18/2009

When I lived in Japan I bowed to lots of people--those I was introduced to, when leaving and saying "thanks" or "goodbye", etc. etc. It meant little more than a handshake in the United States, although it was certainly more formal than a high five, but then Japan is a more formal society than ours. Even two women acquaintances meeting on the street would bow to one another. Their bows--or mine--certainly didn't suggest any subserviency, indeed as a Fulbright professor I was often the honored one. The American right is so narrowly nationalistic, even xeonophobic, that they misread all sorts of things that happen beyond our borders. Good lord, would they have us revert to the Ugly American with all the ill-will and tragedy that promoted??

Ruel J. Eskelsen - 11/18/2009

This incident and the banal triviality of the American Right's criticism of a tiny body movement, undoubtedly performed merely as a polite gesture, is a perfect example of how TV news reporting has become Big Brother.

The chilling effect on public figures having to worry about the slightest body movement captured on camera and circulated to the world with inane, irrelevant commentary by political enemies is very damaging to any notion of a civic culture.

Thank you for reporting the other "bows". We need to have some historical perspective, which is the great service that HNN provides. Too bad we can't get the political right to read HNN. Maybe we should start sending links to Fox News and the other conservative media. Put HNN in their face.