There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled over President Obama’s botched greeting to Emperor Akihito of Japan this past weekend, a lot of it typically partisan. Those on the right (generally opposed to Obama’s every policy) saw it badly with reactions ranging from considering the action proof of an incapacity to be President to a willful attempt to grovel on behalf of the United States to any foreign power we meet. Those on the left (generally defensive of Obama to any and all criticisms, regardless of their merit) saw it as no big deal with reactions ranging from “who cares?” to outright approval. I took one look at this:
…and saw a badly botched greeting, something that very likely even embarrassed the Emperor and his wife.
In Japanese culture, the depth of the bow and the position of the eyes very clearly communicate the assessment of the person bowing of the social status, rank, and respect to be given to the person to whom they are bowing. The very first thing I thought when I saw this picture was “equals do not avert their eyes from each other.” Look where the President is looking. This wasn’t a momentary thing, something caught out of context by the camera. The President, when he bowed, dropped his face nearly to parallel with the floor and his eyes are staring straight down. This is what is done by a servant in Japan. To avert one’s eyes is to show the consideration that one isn’t worthy of looking at the person in front of them. Note where the Emperor’s eyes are trained. That’s right: straight at the President’s head, which is exactly where someone of equal or higher rank will look.
The depth of the bow – and I’m referring to the angle at which one bows – is also highly indicative of the social rank of the participants. It’s not a matter of whose head is physically higher off the ground, the ridiculous excuse the White House staff gave for the reason Obama is bowing so deeply. There have been height differences between citizens of Japan for as long as the custom of bowing has existed. It’s a matter of the depth of your bow relative to the depth of the other person’s bow. He who bows deeper is lower in rank. Equals match each other. Duels were fought instantly in feudal Japan over the matter of a person not bowing to the same angle as the other person when that other person thought they were of equal rank and he wasn’t being shown that respect. And the proper bow, by the way, is generally from the waist, not by arching the back like an angry cat. Note the picture again: Akihito’s bow is to a very slight angle and from the waist with just a hint of an arch to his upper back. Obama’s bow is nearly to 90° and he gets the rest of the way to level with the ground with his back and neck.
Akihito’s is the bow of a national leader greeting another nation’s leader. Obama’s bow is that of a hotel employee offering to carry a customer’s luggage to the car.
And, by the way, you don’t mix greetings by bowing and shaking hands at the same time. Bow, then step forward to shake hands. Or shake hands, step back just a bit and then bow. But not both simultaneously.
We got the exasperated dismissal from many of the President’s defenders over his bow to Saudi King Abdallah with some even saying that what he did wasn’t even a bow. Considering that what he did there was almost identical to what he did here in Japan, I’d say that myth is busted, to borrow a phrase.
What I want to know is where is the White House protocol staff in all of this. Bowing like this to the Emperor should have been an impossible event where competent protocol officers are around. Didn’t they tell him how to do this? Didn’t they warn him about the implicit messages involved in this custom? Did they tell him all of this and he went off and did this bow anyway or did they advise him poorly? The President represents America in matters abroad and it’s important that he come across well. He hasn’t been and that’s a problem that needs fixing. If his protocol staff isn’t doing the job then the White House needs to get people in there who can. It’s just incredible that there’s no one in the United States that could advise the President on matters of protocol to an extent that he could avoid gaffes like this. Either the President needs to find competent people in there to advise him on these matters or he needs to start listening to the advice he’s being given.