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  • Obama in Japan: Not a Bow but a Kowtow

    On President Obama’s trip across Asia, the major news has not been America’s policy posture, but rather our president’s personal posture. On Saturday, photo and video emerged of President Obama bowing at a 45 degree angle, head down, hand outstretched to Japan’s Emperor Akihito. Even within Japanese culture, this bow was certainly excessive. And the flood of pictures now surfacing of other world leaders greeting the Emperor without so much as a head nod prove that this bow was more than a simple diplomatic gesture.

    The bow certainly plays into the image that President Obama is overly obsequious during his overseas trips, such as repeatedly making apologies for past US actions and policies. But more importantly, it reflects the Obama strategy of distinguishing his administration from President Bush’s by making improving the US image the major policy objective rather than as a means to an ends. In fact, he is at such pains to demonstrate respect in relationships where respect and engagement were already abundant, that he can only demonstrate the difference with Bush by going over the top.

    Several other questions come to mind after seeing the bow several times.

    Does the president understand the difference between a bow and a kowtow? The Japanese media certainly do. They did not distribute the embarrassing photo of the president and the emperor to the Japanese people. Instead they chose to distribute the more conservative greeting shared between the President and the Emperor’s wife. The Japanese know the bow would demonstrate weakness on behalf of President Obama, and neither Japan nor the United States would benefit from this impression.

    Who coached the president on the proper way to greet the emperor—a State Department employee, a National Security Council aide, his social secretary? Whoever it was, they were not serving the interests of the President or the nation. Proper, social and diplomatic etiquette is demanded upon any U.S. president, but gestures such as this greeting should not tell more about a meeting rather than the policy that leaves it. Or did the President take it entirely upon himself to discern the complexities of Japanese social custom and the impact on international public perceptions?

    Why does the president seem to apologize for America to every foreign leader he meets? President Obama’s reverential bow to Emperor Akihito raises yet again questions as to whether the president understands that he swore an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, not the UN Charter, and to preserve and protect U.S. interests, not the self-interests of other nations.

    At first the idea of an Obama ‘apology tour’ seemed far fetched. But when Air Force One touches down anywhere overseas, President Obama seems determined to demonstrate he is not President Bush or any other president and that America is humbled by other nation’s leadership.

    Asian leaders pay careful attention to the conduct of a visiting dignitary. President Obama’s obsequious act was that of a third world official – if that – not the chief of state of the most important nation in the world. While President Obama’s diplomatic inexperience can excuse some behavior, ten months into his presidency, he and his staff should know better.

    President Obama’s bow, almost a kowtow, to Japan’s emperor is more than embarrassing. But most importantly it detracts from the more important aspects of the president’s trip to Asia. The President has rightly affirmed a strong stance towards North Korea and made strides in a couple other critical ongoing policy matters, many left over from President Bush’s near decade of engagement. On the negative side of the ledger, Obama has demonstrated a total lack of U.S. trade policy, ignoring pleas for progress on trade issues and drawing criticism from both sides of the Pacific.

    But those issues will be put aside while America and the rest of the world guess what President Obama meant by his extreme bow. Presidents from Nixon to Clinton to Bush were able to greet Japanese leaders with the proper mix of respect and decorum. Those photos of past presidents are available to review but often forgotten. The image of Obama bowing is a picture worth a thousand words, and will be an image embedded in the minds of historians when they reflect on his administration.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    42 Responses to Obama in Japan: Not a Bow but a Kowtow

    1. mike milwaukee says:

      obama is a embarrassment to the united states….he should resign

    2. lyle b (live in New says:

      Hello Conservative Friends,

      Being respectful is not a sign of weakness.

      I have been to Asia many times because my wife is Chinese. Asian people like us and do excuse our ways.

      Trust me President Obama's bow was taken as he meant it A SIGN OF RESPECT.

      At least a shoe wasn't thrown at him from some idiot we were suppose to be helping.

      Ok send me all the emails now, but to each of you thanks for reading my post and thank you Heritage Foundation for allowing me to post.

      Oh yes for all of you who are going to curse at me you are a great American.


    3. rob koons says:

      Once again we see the true colors of our President. What most do not realize that he is not concerned about this posistion of power that he holds but I believe and I believe his actions will prove me right that he is looking for a much greater posistion of power. What posisiton is that? Well they have not created President of the World yet but I think he would jump at that chance quickly but Secretary General of the United Nations would be a much more important role in his eyes and a much bigger prize. He does want the US to be equal to the third world nations and he wants to be leader of all.

      With the lack of education in this country and the total disregard to our constitution I see no reason anybody should be surprised or amazed. We have let ourselves be fooled by 2 parties that have the same goal and that is to make sure at the end of the game they have all the money and power and if that means a new world government I think they would welcome it. So all you Republicans who think having a Republican President is so much better go back and actualy study what the party has been doing to this once great nation and focus on kicking both out of Washington or we will be bowing to Emporer of the World "Barrack Obama"!!!!!

    4. Mr. Illinois, Chicag says:

      This was definitely NOT protocol for 2 reasons:

      1. The President's bowing actually breaks protocol. Prior protocol has been that American dignitaries shake hands & occasionally offer a very slight bow. Not a deep one that breaks eye contact & suggests subservience. The original L.A. Times blog post includes pictures supporting this.

      - The State Department & New York Times also agree according to the June 14, 1994 Times article "The President's Inclination: No, It Wasn't a Bow-Bow"

      2. The video shows Emperor Akihito approaching President Obama with his arm extended for a handshake. Our President breaks protocol again by bowing & shaking simultaneously, abnormal in Japanese culture.

      Plus, Emperor Akihito did NOT return the bow. Had he returned the bow, this would have been a positive display of mutual respect. Because he did not, this becomes a disturbing show of one-sided deference inappropriate for our President in the face of a foreign leader.

      I sincerely wish that this time the foreign official our nation's leader bowed to had returned the same courtesy & respect. Bowing is a common gesture in the Japanese culture, & one the Emperor should have initiated or returned without hesitation (especially as he's the 1st Emperor not considered divine).

      The first incident (with the Saudi King) may have been impulsive or simply a poor decision by President Obama & can be easily overlooked. Everyone makes mistakes. But Americans NEED to know that our President is building relationships of mutual admiration, not simply kowtowing from a subservient position.

    5. Bobbie Jay says:

      I appreciate a bow of respect, but the American president makes it look insulting.

    6. Jaime, Oklahoma says:

      Interesting take on things. It's nice to see someone who disagrees with what Obama did, but who is not flipping out about it. It's also nice to see that you're not ignoring the other parts of his Asian tour like some.

      I disagree with your position on the bow, though. I think the reason Japanese newspapers didn't use it is because it looks odd, not because it was "subservient". You have to remember that Asian cultures look at the world differently than we do, and a deep bow like that is not subservient, it is humble. It's the kind of bow you give someone who you are trying to show great respect to.

      The part that was weird was the handshake on top of that. I agree that it wasn't necessary on top of the bow, but frankly I consider that to be a relatively minor issue. Unfortunately, in this nation, which made a mountain out of Dean's famous "scream" and is unfortunately much more concerned about outward appearances than deeper meanings, it's almost certainly going to be used as ammunition to show that Obama is "weak".

      The sad irony here is that Americans in general consider anyone powerful who doesn't act like he's on top to actually be weak, when in fact the opposite is usually the case. Someone powerful who is willing to show humility is actually confident in his position.

    7. raymond cole says:

      it is a wonder that he did not go down on his face as in the old days when the emperor of Japan was a god

    8. Michael says:

      Why does everyone make excuses for POTUS? IS he really that uninformed. Please, let put at least some of the responsibility where it belongs. ON the Presidents head.

    9. Cristina, Miami, FL says:

      He makes my skin boil!!!!!!

    10. dee says:

      Obama is weak–very weak—and the world knows it. We are in so much trouble…

    11. Shelley Worrell says:

      I don't see much difference in this bow and the one to the Saudi King. I'm surprised he didn't "curtsy" the Queen!

    12. Vinny Goomba says:

      GET A LIFE !!!!!……….Is the way the President bows the only thing you woory about. At least he didn't HURL in the Emperor's lap like "W" did.

    13. Vinny Goomba says:

      What's wrong with what I said on your blog…… are you going to start censuring free speech now !

    14. JD Hawkins, Florida says:

      Where are the "REAL" American men (and women) we need to lead this country? I'd kill for a Reagan or even John Wayne at this point. I hope the 50+ percent of you who elected this amateur are feeling especially proud today. Make you feel good to be an American? Really??! Is that what you tell yourself? Your "change" sickens the rest of us, and we pity you.

    15. Evan, Washington says:

      Kowtow is a word which English inherited from the Chinese _kete_ , and it's actually a very ritualized and formal type of bow; one that is only performed in China. Specifically, the person who is performing a kowtow gets down on his knees and touches his head to the ground three times. This is usually a payment of respects to one's ancestors.

      If Obama had performed this ritual, I would certainly feel as though there were reason to be upset. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge fan of Obama, but if we rage about every tiny fault we just get made fun of on The Daily Show.

      Bowing is a matter of politeness and has very little bearing on social or political status in most places in Asia. The roots of the gesture do imply humility or submission – but similar things could be said of a handshake (the universal gesture for "I am unarmed and vulnerable, are you?"). In the case of bowing to the emperor, this is quite similar to the mandatory audience with the Queen of England. The real power lies with the Diet and the Executives in Japan – who are mostly fresh to their jobs due to the recent LDP upset. In these circumstances, Obama was wise to adhere to cultural norms – because small gestures go a long way in guaranteeing that our long-time friend, Japan, will not become an opponent of US policy in Asia now that it is under new leadership.

      With regard to Saudi Kings, perhaps, this behavior is less appropriate, but Foundry readers deserve to understand all the background.

    16. Ozzy6900, CT says:

      Correct decorum is if you bow, you bow. You do not bow and shake hands at the same time. Usually, you would bow first THEN shake hands.

      This changes if you are the leader or representative of a country. There is old saying, "kings never bow fully to another king". The leader (President) should only dip his/her head and his/her entourage would bow fully. This includes the spouse of the leader (President). The only time it is proper for a leader to deviate from this is if he/she were receiving a blessing from a Spiritual Leader such as the Pope. It is then understood that "All kings bow before the King and His Father.".

      It would be nice if Our President would learn proper decorum because it makes the USA look like it is submitting every time he visits another country. His lack of knowledge of how to present himself makes America a laughing stock.

    17. Tom Padamonsky, Okin says:

      I am currently living in Japan for the past 23 yrs. The bow of Obama shows a complete lack of knowledge regarding the bow. His bow is considered that of a weak & subservient person, not a person who is a head of state. He is equal to the emperor not subordinate. He should present himself as such. The Japanese news media tried to save Obama's face so the people wouldn't snicker at him

    18. Evan, Washington says:

      The Emperor of Japan IS a spiritual leader though – he is the direct descendent of heavenly power, thereby the leader of the Shinto religion.

      Again, the Saudis are a different issue.

    19. Tim Az says:

      I don't think Mao-Bama was trying to outdo President Bush. I think he was trying to outdo slick Willey. He just got too excited and propositioned the Emporer instead of his intended target the Emporer's wife. America needs a good laugh right now.

    20. Reed says:

      Again, as I read all the comments about any news story posted on Mr. Obama I see the same trend.

      1. Apologists who say, "come on he didn't KNOW better." This is followed by a direct personal attack on some other past or present polticial type (usually a republican).

      2. The whiners, who again complain that everyone else is picking on Mr. Obama.

      3. The observers who point out just how inappropriate the actions / policies are.

      Finally, the alarmists. Every event is a political disaster, resulting in immenient demise of our society.

      Largely the truth lies somewhere between.

      Yes, as THE leader of THE largest free republic in THE world, Mr. Obama needs to act the part, because he is REPRESENTING all of us, NOT just his personal political views or objectives.

      This is HIS job to be the single "point man" of the United States of America, and he needs to start doing his job – not forcing his personal agenda on all of us.

      He is accountable. IF someone on his staff didn't properly brief him, then that individual should be tossed. IF Mr. Obama continues to act recklessly, then He is responsible and should be held accountable for such stupidity.

      My president, OUR president should be serious enough to do his job as we have entrusted him.

      The apologists need to stop attacking everyone else, or blaming Bush,etc., for Mr. Obama's behavior.

      As for me, I'll vote my opinion in 2010, and 2012. That is how I'll judge his accountibility, and job performance. Right now, my choice is someone else in 2012.

    21. Jill Hetherington says:

      He goes out of his way to be humble every where but here.

    22. Normca says:

      Here's my wish. To all who are not proud of this country – be well, but get out. If you cannot say the U S A is the best country in the world then go live in Cuba or Venezuela. And respect and being liked on the world stage are two different issues. Obama wants to be liked for himself. The problem is he is supposed to be representing America. The idiot in the white house belongs in Cuba. He apologized for America again on the current trip. This country rebuilt Japan after Japan tried to destroy America. Reverend Wright is in the body of Barrack Huessen Obama – Obama is Wright. Disgraceful. And lets not forget its the media in this country that covers him.

    23. Les, Rock Hill, SC says:

      Evan, Akihito is the first Emperor of Japan that is not considered to be devine. He is not a God. That brings up another idea about Obama's low bow. Since Obama thinks he is a God why would he be bowing to anybody? Obama is a joke world wide and his behavior just serves to reinforce the idea that the American people are fat and weak with no heart. Thats why terrorist like Bin Laden feel like they can attack the United States and get away with it.

      I just hope and pray that our country can survive the next three years without too much damage.

    24. Freedom of Speech, T says:

      Our Dear Leader can bow to whomever he wants. I'm over that ___. Maybe that is the new wave in our world order. If so, then who will be at the top?

      Wonder what General McArthur would have thought? After all, he virtually wrote their constitution which gave women rights they could have never dreamed of. A slight head nod by each would have sufficed.

      We have NOTHING to apologize for.

    25. Dean-Texas/Alaska says:

      The "angle" of the bow is the degree of servitude shown to the other in Japanese culture. Equals bow equally. You'll notice the Japanese bowed not at all. This shows the degree of respect these people have for Obama, and thus for his representation of America.

    26. Sandra Dey says:

      Looks like most of the posters like the isolationist position.

      Also the constant whining of blame the media never seems to amaze

      me. The right is upset that after 8 long years when the world hated the arrogant swagger that destroyed the reputation of America we now have a President who is loved by his people and the world except a few on the right.

    27. Evan, Washington says:

      Lee, thanks for the clarification, if that's the popular perception then I am in complete agreement with the inappropriateness of his bow.

      On a side note though, I have no idea where anybody is getting the notion that Obama thinks he's above anybody else – I've seen nothing but modesty from the man, which is its own problem. I'm all for a man going far on his own merits and taking credit for what he's rightfully earned. I think Obama has done that.

      He's clearly not the worst we've had, but McCain probably would be handling some of this stuff much better. I'm with Reed, if the actions of one man – even "the most powerful man" – can cause any serious damage to America, then we have many more serious problems than Pres. Obama.

      America is strong, whether that's how we are represented or not. It's foolish to act as though this one fellow could shatter 200 years of American success (as is condescendingly, and incessently, repeated on every episode of the Glenn Beck show). That is, unless Americans have become so weak that we can't survive 3 years of less than positive behavior and policy?

    28. Scott, Michigan says:

      Whether or not bowing and the degree that it was done was appropriate should definitely have been addressed by his staff. Obama is always sounding like he is apologizing for the country where none is needed, but with the power and prestige behind him, at least he should hire a good staff to guide him in areas that he does not know about. If he did hire someone who advised him differently in this case, he should listen to them.

      I just hope that we can get someone with a little common sense in the office soon instead of someone who is just good at reading a teleprompter.

      It does not matter as much what the Japanese thought of this as some have argued here, but what the rest of the world sees as our potential weakness.

    29. Knaup, Kansas says:

      Yet another embarrassing blunder by our clueless president. Imagine how Obama's mainstream media would cover this if Bush had done it. They would crucify him, but again, another serious flubup by Obama with all the world to see ignored.

    30. Rodney, Miami says:

      Sandra Dey,

      I find it almost impossible to believe that you believe what you wrote. Obama is not loved so much as protected from the eyes and ears of the American people by the left leaning media. Which is why people like yourself have no reason to feel about him like we do, the people who are privy to his agenda and behavior. Then again if you are absorbing what the left leaning media (MSNBC, CBS, CNN, New York Times, Etc.)is letting you know about him then I can understand your view. But views can change on the drop of a dime. Simply pick up a copy of our Constitution, read it and understand it. Understand also that this Presidents goal is to destroy the principles that document is based upon. Then maybe your views can change. Till then your opinion says alot about you so careful how many people you grant it an audience to. Take care.

    31. Normca says:

      Some people who like to become educated by reading Heritage are just blinded by hate fed by the main stream media. I do not despise you, I feel sorry for you. One who fires private company CEO's, gives companies to the union in deference to bond holders, sets salary requirements for some and leaves Fannie May alone, summarily fires Inspector Generals, wants to punish CIA agents for following orders, asks you to sacrifice while he dines on Cobbie beef, tells you to stop smoking while he continues, tells other countries the USA, who saved them from tyranny, is arrogant, but he is not and on and on, is not above everyone else. If that is not being blind, I can see 40 40. Get real.

    32. Freedom of Speech, T says:

      Dear Sandra Dey,

      Still starstruck. The question is why?

      This man and his admin are conducting voodoo economics. Do you budget by spending more than you have?

      As for being "isolationist", we won't have to worry about the real and permanent contempt the world will have for us when our dollar rivals a banana republic (sorry, that's insensitive to Hugo Chavez). We'll take a lot of countries down with us.

    33. Jeanne- Syracuse says:

      Everyday, it seems our great president is doing something stupid to belittle our great country and it's citizens. I am bowing my head too, not out of subservience, but out of disappointment and disgust. I fear this president and his followers, they ignore our wishes and put forth phony polls stating untrue statistics in order to maintain their goal for government control. We are headed for a bad place. 2012, it what I am waiting for. The conservatives must come up with a great candidate to push this idiot out of office.

    34. Ellen Tulsa, Ok says:

      I am totally ashamed of Obama!!! He comes across as uncouth and ignorant of proper protocol. AND, I am tired of being called arrogant and the AG calling the American people cowards. I can't understand why Obama would want to be President of the US when he has to apologize for the American people and the US every time he is in a foreign country.

      And Obama does not give the part of his frame for the bowing picture!!!


    35. Jill, California says:

      Perhaps Obama wanted the Emperor to get a good look at how empty his head is.

    36. Doug Simmons, Twai says:

      Remember that old fast food commercial " Where's the Beef??"

      Our current president and his staff (and the majority of the media) are busy all day, every day misleading us about the wonderful new things they are doing for and to our country. The media and other apologists remind me of the wizzard in OZ, when he says, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtian!" I do not like being lied to, especially by our leadership.

      My point is that if it acts like a duck, well by golly it is a duck. Just one more confirmation about his intentions and attitude towards our country.

      At some point most Americans will WAKE UP and see that the Emperor has no clothes on, and will stop making excuses for him.

    37. Lynn B. DeSpain says:

      The President is to represent the will of the American People, and the American People bow to no Man! Therefore He is no President of the American People!

    38. Stephanie Chicago says:

      I am embarassed by these subservient displays from our president. Our nation does more to help the impoverished, downtrodden, and freedom deprived than any other nation in the world, therefore I see no reason to be apologetic. I am tired of repeated apologies and groveling. I am also suspicious of the motivation behind these acts. I'm ready to have my country back.

    39. James, Chicago says:

      Obama's apology tours should be seen not just as apologies for the damage this evil country has done to the world for the 200 years before He ascended to the Presidency, but also a repeated expression of his profound condemnation of this country throughout its history. Read his only candid book, Dreams From My Father, written at age 36, in which he has NOTHING good to say about the U.S. but only criticism. He is the President Against America.

    40. Bill S., Kihei, Maui says:

      Joe Biden taught him how to bow.

    41. Suzanne, Florida says:

      Two situations that NEVER change:




    42. Ed Ogle, Florida says:

      Vinny Goomba, if you are going to disrespect someone you need to get it right – It was George H. W. Bush, 41st President, and WWII torpedo bomber pilot, that had the misfortune of barfing on Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and not the Emperor, during a state dinner. Bush got sick at the dinner after playing a brutal tennis match with the Emperor.

      Even though the emperor is no longer considered a divinity, protocol places the emperor above “State Dinners”.

      Therefore, regardless of your hatred, “W” or George W. Bush 43rd President did not barf on anyone.

      He also did not show his ignorance by bowing to Japan’s emperor while representing the United States in a foreign country.

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