To Bow Or Not To Bow

We have no finishing school for our Presidents …

To Bow Or Not To Bow
Interestingly, Donald Trump chose not to bow to Japan’s Emperor in his recent trip to Japan. Instead, he politely nodded and made friendly eyes-contact as he shook the welcoming Emperor’s hand.

In modern Japan, that would be proper behavior for a foreign visitor. Japanese bow to one another constantly and robotically as a matter of social heirarchical ordering and harmonious courtesy. That is an internal custom. For foreign guests and businessmen, bowing is not expected, even shunned, as it signals a form of intimacy not shared with “gaijins” or foreigners. Unless, of course, you are their colonial subjects …

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and  Emperor Akihito, center, as Empress Michiko looks on at the Imperial Palace in Tokyoo

As equals, and representing nation-to-nation, not bowing would be proper.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Japan's Emperor Akihito during their meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

And indeed, the meeting seemed to be fine.

On a previous occasion, however …

obama bow

Obama’s 90-degree bow was improper, whether as an individual or representing his country.  It would confuse the Japanese as to what to do with the relationship.

Every Degree Counts
Among Japanese, equals would bow to each other equally, at around 17-degree. Subordinates would go down to 30-degree. Superiors bow less, say 10-degree, to an immediate subordinate, and even less to those more junior. Bowing 45-degree or more would demonstrate humility and self-deprecation of status, but never more than 60-degree.

On the street, you would see Japanese bow to each other repeatedly as they move past one another, going deeper each time, until they seem to strike the proper balance, at which point they would stop and simultaneously bow at equal depth, and (aah … relief …) now they can move on. That is their way of being polite, like the way we would tell each other “G’day”, “Have a terrific one”, ” You even better”, until it gets to “Same to you” and “You too”, before moving on.

Bowing more than 60-degree is a no-no, unless you are a slave or an untouchable! One exception is when a cabinet minister receives the credential of his/her appointment from the Emperor at the official ceremony, in which case he/she must bend deep enough to receive the document “from above his/her head”.

Obama should have been properly briefed on such inter-cultural sensitivities. His 90-degree bow was doubly awkward because he bent his spine! One must hold one’s back up straight, no matter how deep the bow. What was he thinking? Receiving the Nobel Prize?

Equally Not Kosher
One does not have to be a stickler in etiquette to inform Obama in advance to try to finish the sushi that was served to him at the exclusive sitting at the legendary Jiro’s . Half way through the exquisitely-prepared sushi set, Obama decided he could not swallow any more raw fish. That was awkward, as each person was served a portion on each round, and Obama’s just sat there. And it was only half-way through the 18-course classic presentation, for which seating one would normally have to reserve at least a year in advance!

Worse, he put down his chopsticks in an incorrect way, one that would be insulting to the chef and embarassing to the host. The next minutes were very tense, as Obama also began to want to talk about issues. Abe ignored him, but kept filling his sake cup, and toasting him and each of the guest present, individually in separate rounds. Obama drank up on each round graciously (it was an excellent sake). Toward the end, the President was too inebriated to talk about the issues. Everybody got happy. The sake saved the day.

Learning The Lesson
This time around, our diplomatic personnel did their job by letting the Japanese know in advance that Donald Trump likes his hamburger meat well-done.


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