November 18th, 2009

President Obama’s bow to Japan’s emperor shows breach in protocol

by Jacqueline Whitmore
Obama's bow causes breach in protocol.

Obama’s bow causes breach in protocol.

Let’s set the record straight once and for all.  Protocol dictates that a chief of state should not…I repeat, should not bow to another chief of state.  President Obama did indeed commit a presidential gaffe when he bowed to Japan’s Emperor, Akihito during his visit to Japan last weekend.

Only Emperor Akihito’s subjects are required to bow to him. In contrast, when the President visited Queen Elizabeth II earlier this year, he did not bow to her. “The bow was a simple show of respect,” the State Department said in a statement on Tuesday in a response to critics (like me) who decried the move.  Experts in Japanese etiquette have even praised it as an appropriate show of respect.

Most Americans don’t take the time or see the need to learn about cross-cultural issues.  As a result, there is a lot of ignorance and confusion surrounding other cultures .  We are the most culturally diverse national in the world, yet we are the most culturally unaware.

If I were to go to another country and meet a king, queen or emperor it would not be necessary for me to bow or curtsy because I’m not a subject in that country.  In Japan, subjects bow as a sign of respect to the person who holds the higher rank and status.  The deeper the bow indicates the deeper the respect a person holds for another person, especially one in power.

President Obama’s actions speak louder than words.  He was not only showing respect, he was showing deference to Emperor Akihito.  And again, that’s just something the leader of the free world is not required or expected to do with other world leaders.

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