Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Obama bowing to convention

November 16, 2009


The depth or angle of U.S. President Barack Obama’s bow — and handshake — with Japan’s Emperor Akihito has become a heated on-line topic, with sides arching into political camps on whether the greeting went too far — literally – or was appropriate based on customs and culture.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on bowing in Japan, but a few basic rules of thumb, or backbone, are: the more important a person you are greeting, the deeper and longer you bow, with hands generally at one’s sides; and multiple purposes can be served by this act including greeting as well as displays of respect, recognition, apology or gratitude.

While no one called the president’s bow an expression of apology or thanks, a number of blogs examined his and other U.S. leaders’ historical bent in stooping to diplomatically conquer, with a few labelling the U.S. commander-in-chief ”O-Bow-Ma”.

The Fox network and the Los Angeles Times blog offered details of Obama’s and other official U.S. greetings with the imperial family, including a photo of Vice President Dick Cheney shaking Akihito’s hand, and one posted a comment that bowing and handshaking should not be done simultaneously.

A blog from ABC news Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper, citing an academic friend, says both sides have it wrong, as the bow was not over — or under — the top in precedence, although it did not display the cultural understanding intended, rather weakness in Japanese terms.

The Huffington Post, meanwhile, seeming to anticipate a “bow row” ahead, noted criticism Obama had already received for a greeting of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in April, with Republican Senators blasting him and the White House calling the president “bent over” to shake hands but not in a bow.

Rounding out coverage, Japan’s Sankei Shimbun/MSN on-line carried news of the Fox report that Obama’s bow was too low for a head of state as well as the comparison to Cheney’s 2007 Akihito handshake, adding a slate of imperial photos with slightly different angles and framing.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Young


Wait until he genuflects at the POPE!!!!


Well, historically the bow is a sign of respecting your counterpart. Technically, the shorter your counterpart the lower your bow just to have your head below his standing. Our President is a tall guy and eventually has to go deeper in the bow in order to have the bow represents its historical meaning. I don’t see any harm done to the president or to us by showing deep respect to Japan’s Emperor. The challenge is on the part of the Emperor on how to return the greeting. I think they should have a basketball match :)

Posted by Ali | Report as abusive

The arrogance and idiocy of my fellow Americans never fails to amaze me. Bowing is what you do in Japan, period. Last time I checked they were pretty important allies. We are not a nation in a position to be pissing anyone off. Especially given the fact that most of our debt is held by China and JAPAN. Remember the policy of disrespect of the last 8 years? Judging from the current mess, that didn’t go so well. So maybe people should have a little patience. You guys gave a dimwit 8 years to royally screw up the world, at least give this president the next four. At least he was legitmately elected.

Posted by BB | Report as abusive

That’t not even President Obama, its his protective aide (Body Double). Blame him…

Posted by Going Rogue | Report as abusive

Japan’s emperor does not have the absolute power his predecessors had. It’s more a symbolic figure so I believe that president Ob ama went a bit too low in his bow. However, it’s a sign of respect and I believe it went well in Japan.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

Ouch. Nasty photo. He’s supposed to have people to tell him how to do this. But at least he didn’t puke on the guy’s floor like Bush.

Posted by Bowser | Report as abusive

We are the world’s unchallenged superpower — a little humility can go a long way. I applaud Pres Obama.

Posted by Kelly | Report as abusive

Having been stationed in the far east , I do not see a problem with Obama following the customs of the people.

If anything its showing RESPECT. And for those that think that a simple hand shake is good enough, I can say from first hand experience that some politicians do NOT shake hands properly and with a firm grip.

So go for it Obama, follow the customs and courtesy’s of the country your visiting, Just Please Please do NOT admit or say something that comes close to an apology from the United States of American, unless you made a mistake. Or better be specific that the former administration did but not the American people. Drop dimes on the person that your apologizing for

Posted by Michael BB | Report as abusive

He is just building relationship.


Stop with the ridiculous analysis – bow too low – bow respects the culture – etc. No US President has ever bowed to any head of state – ever. We bow (show signs of subservience) to NO ONE!

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

You guys like to blow things out of proportion. It doesn’t mean that because Obama is a president of the most powerful country in the world he should disrespect other people’s culture! It seems diversity and tolerance remain a problem in some parts of the world. I want to see more of issues than cheap gossips such as these.

Posted by Erick Kabendera | Report as abusive

Obama is Un-Presidential when he bows to The Emperor Of Japan and continues to make America weak. Check out this video showing him in action.

https://www.americanpatriotsprevail.com/ Obama_Bows_To_The_Emper.html


The bow was bad. While bowing is the correct form of greeting among all classes in Japan, ‘overbowing’ is actually impolite and considered ironic. As a foreigner he surely could be forgiven for that, but the bow was far too deep and therefore inappropriate on grounds of diplomatic etiquette. Two heads of state should greet each other as equals. He could have greeting the Emperor either with a regular 45 degree bow and no hand shake. If done right, that could have been nice. More appropriate and much less risky would be a hand shake accompanied with a Western-style slight bow or head movement and a friendly smile.

Posted by Ian | Report as abusive

American presidents have a mixed record in Japan when it comes to diplomatic protocol. At least Mr. Obama managed to keep his food down during dinner.

Posted by Roderick | Report as abusive

The O-bow-ma bow has now entered history in the category “Memorable Greetings”. One wonders how he will greet prime minister Putin … will it be Gorbachev style http://img.timeinc.net/time/europe/magaz ine/2009/0629/russia_0629.jpg or Brezhnev style http://confrontaal.org/wordpress/wp-cont ent/uploads/2009/05/010201475234001.jpg

Posted by Ian | Report as abusive

Clearly, he’s overdoing it but, just as clearly, he simply hadn’t been coached very well. Or was nervous, dunno. Sometimes he lacks judgment, true, but hey, could of been worse, like attacking some country. So you know what, so far so good, still.

Posted by Laz | Report as abusive

It is funny how the Obama apologists just can’t resist the jab at previous administrations. Good thing Obama didn’t have the flu. Otherwise, the emperor would have to have one of his minions clean his shoes.

Unwillingly contracting the flu and willingly bowing down to royalty are two completly different things.

BTW, we defeated royalty to ensure freedom for all Americans. Royalty that wanted to keep us down and subservient. George Washington wanted to ensure the president was not royalty. That’s why we address the president as “Mr. President”.

We do not bow down to royalty from any country.

Posted by TC | Report as abusive

@TC I take it you black out any time the Queen of England comes to America. She represents your deep-seeded hatred of other cultures, yet she is shown great amounts of respect by our government. OMG, our government wants to go back to Kings and Queens! Glen Beck was right! AHHHHhhhhhhhh!!!!

Posted by Sam | Report as abusive

HOW TRIVIAL!! “To bow too low or not bow to low?” Is there a rule book or pamphlet to show the proper bend in a bow? Was there anyone with a tape measure when President Obama bowed to Emperor Akihito!! I respect the courtesy shown!! Why are we leaving Emperor Akihito’s wife out of the equation?? Is she not shown any respects??

Posted by lois eisenberg | Report as abusive

OK… Obama was right to bow in Japan, and I fully support him bowing. Bowing is a sign of respect in Japan, although you Americans are not accustomed to it. Obviously, Obama was trying to show respect for the Japanese Prime Minister… and I believe the Americans just have too big an ego to keep it in check. Who cares if your president bowed to a foreign one? Suck it up :P

Posted by Marcus | Report as abusive

You folks waste a lot of time writing silly stuff that has no relevance for politics or economics. I guess having being wrong on all the important issues of the time you might as well as be silly and trivial.

Posted by Jag Rao | Report as abusive


Posted by lou | Report as abusive

Well, judging from the photo it is obvious that Obama is:

a) Showing respect to the head of another country,
b) Looking for a lost contact lense, or
c) Trying to hide the fact he threw his back out on the flight over.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and go with option A. There is nothing wrong with showing respect to a foreign monarch. Obama’s bowing is nothing to complain about, and it is nothing but a storm in a teacup.

After all, there are plenty of other things (foreign, economic and healthcare policy) which represent legitimate complaints to make about Obama.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

just another jellyfish in japan

Posted by ilaughatu | Report as abusive

obama did not bow properly.thus, he offended the president of china. I will not “suck it up”, Marcus!
3 cheers for PRESIDENT BUSH! 3 boos for Sucker obama!

Posted by Obamasucks | Report as abusive

It’s good that he respects the culture of Japan. After all, he’s visiting Japan, not the other round.
It does look funny to bow and to shake hands at the same time. I guess the Emperor of Japan must be very embarrassed as well. He probably did not expect Obama to bow, that’s why he offered to shake hand.


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