by Translation Guy on November 18, 2009

President Obama’s deep bow to the Emperor of Japan a few days ago made the headlines. The photo was everywhere, and certainly makes for interesting blog fodder (thus this post).

Conservative mudslingers see it as a violation of all that America holds dear, an egregious grovel-ation of republican (small r) principles. According to Miss Manners and others, as a matter of protocol, Presidents have generally avoided bowing to foreign potentates, but the Obama administration takes a different view. Defenders applaud the “When in Rome” sensibility of our international president conforming to local customs.

As a long-time Japanese bow-er fascinated with the way leaders use culture and language to aggrandize their power, I’d call it a great teaching moment.

They start bowing young in Japan, and many times I’ve seen a Japanese dad push down his boy’s head when the child missed a social cue. It touches me when I see that, reminds me of my Dad teaching me how to shake hands. “Stand tall, son, and look ‘em in the eye!”

I first learned to bow as part of my practice of Kendo, Japanese fencing. I was taught in the same way as Japanese kids. At the start of every class the sempai or senior student shouts out “Rei!” and everyone bows, all at the same time and all to the same degree, and sometimes on hands and knees, a full kowtow. And I practiced a lot in the mirror too.

These are the rules I follow. Never bow and shake hands at the same. A bow usually comes first, so keep your distance to avoid knocking heads. Feet together and hands at your side (ladies hand over hand in front). Back straight. Maintain eye contact. Go deeper to express gratitude, apology or inferiority. For example, the shopkeeper will always bow lower than the shopper. So unless you’re a shopkeeper don’t bow too low. Special foreigner bonus: keep smiling, unless it’s a serious occasion.

Every time I pull a deep one, I am reminded of that old shaker hymn;

…to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed, to turn and to turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Thanks to my bowing and bending skills I rose high (sort of) in Japan’s Foreign Ministry, and had the chance to write a few speeches for the Emperor back when he was Crown Prince. So I was disappointed by the President’s sloppy and inappropriate bow to my old boss. I’ve never seen anyone bow so low in simple greeting. Had the President been in my dojo he would have gotten a whack with a bamboo shinai for such a performance. (We were old school.)

When I worked for the Japanese government, in addition to my writing duties, I was often called on as a cultural coach. Prepping Japanese officials making speeches or going on TV, as in “that was perfect, Mr. Ambassador, but let’s try this instead…”

And at the functions, I was one of guys in a suit, tie and smile making sure everything went off smoothly, so I would sometimes get button-holed by Americans wanting to make the right impression. So how do you teach the exotic protocal of Japanese greeting in five seconds? So easy. “Just be yourself. You’re speaking English, so shake hands. You only bow if you are speaking Japanese.”

So what’s up with the President’s goofy gesture? Where was the little State Department factotum like me who should have been whispering in his ear? Busy guy, I know, but it would have taken less then 5 seconds to get that message as he got out of the car. So it came off completely clueless… not exactly disrespectful, not exactly insulting, but careless as if he learned everything he needed to know about the Far East watching Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto on late night movies. “So sorry… so very, very sorry…”

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. My career has been about that cross cultural dynamic and I bet every one of you that’s read this far shares that view. (If you don’t, I’m sure I’ll hear about it in your comments.) And everyone gets credit for trying. But to do as the Romans do, one must learn what they do. I’m an accomplished foreign jack-ass myself, but I did manage to learn from the diplomats that diplomacy requires consideration. Even diplomatic niceties are matters of state, after all.

When I complained about this to one of my clients on the phone the other day (Canadian, so we know he is neutral, eh), he said, “Well, would it have been better if he vomited on him?” referring to Bush Sr., flu attack at a state dinner with a Japanese PM a few years ago. Well, perhaps not.

As a postscript, the most famous Imperial US-Japan bow was the post-WWII meeting between General Douglas MacArthur and the Emperor Hirohito, who then faced the prospect of an American hanging as a war criminal. After arriving to head the occupation of Japan, Dugout Doug had left the Emperor twisting in the wind for weeks, never paying a call at the palace. After weeks of nervous waiting the Emperor got the message, and broke protocol to make a call on the general himself. MacArthur didn’t even put on a tie for the meeting, and the Emperor was in formal morning attire.

The various degrees of respect demonstrated in this meeting were crystal clear to victor and vanquished. it’s nice that nowadays Japan-US tempests are confined to tea cups. I had a chance to talk to some guys who witnessed this meeting, but that’s a story for another time.

Because now, Mr President, and all the rest of you who would bow in the Japanese fashion, we must practice. So easy. So very, very easy… Please stand in front of the mirror, and let’s see if your form is correct. And remember, I’m old school. Rei!


  1. Sooshi says:

    Right Ken, if you are traveling to Japan, knowing how to bow in Japan can be helpful. Bowing (ojigi) is an important custom in Japan.

  2. I’m interested to hear from the guys who had the opportunity to witness the meeting between General Douglas MacArthur and the Emperor Hirohito…so cool!

  3. Zeddy says:

    I’m sorry…but the AMERICAN HEAD OF STATE SHOULD NOT BOW TO ANY OTHER HEAD OF STATE…A polite handshake would suffice.

  4. Toby says:

    No problem in bowing that’s their culture for respect. In Philippines we get one hand and put in our forehead. It’s a matter of respect of other nationalities.

  5. Miya says:

    WTF? Will this man ever stop bowing and scraping to foreign leaders. What is wrong with him?

  6. Ralph Mason says:

    The only public social faux pas that the President might have made while visiting us here was in shaking hands at the same time as he bowed. It`s one or the other, never both simultaneously.

  7. Jack Slate says:

    so what? George Bush held hands with and kissed the Saudi king when he was president…

  8. Doggystyle says:

    such bigotry is a pet peeve for me. Seriously!

  9. FranoManko says:

    Obama should stand tall as did General MacArthur 64 years ago!

  10. Jules88 says:

    It’s possible, being so much taller, he was simply trying to look the emperor in he eye.

  11. 1972anyone says:

    It’s even possible that he stumbled – there are cracks in the floor clearly visible in the photo.

  12. Chiccco says:

    Actually Obama saw a dime on the floor and thought, “Hey, this will help reduce the deficit!”

  13. Starlight says:

    Wait until Obama meets Bin Ladin, Big O is going to kiss his feet.

  14. Mark Adams says:

    Wow! Isn’t Barack Obama respectful? He is such a sweet guy to everyone but the American citizens.

  15. As much as I dislike what President Obama is doing to the United States, what he did here, I think, was appropriate.

  16. Ccid says:

    The emperor of Japan, in my opinion, is a man of honor, and worthy of respect. However, bowing to the Saudi King was not appropriate. He is not worthy of respect.

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