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    Gettin’ 辞儀 with it

    So President Obama bowed—BOWED!—when he met Emperor Akihito in Tokyo last week, and friends of every conceivable political persuasion have wondered what it meant.

    Short answer: I don’t know. I don’t live inside his head.

    Long answer: Meeting Japanese people in formal settings tends to make Westerners act Very Weird.

    I’m not sure what exactly the issue is. Part of it, I think, is that Japan is seen as obsessed with etiquette and doing the Right Thing in every situation. Part of it is that Japan is seen as enigmatic, lofty, Zen-like, ineffably subtle, and trailing delicate mists that can only be perceived by the acutely sensitive. The feeling in the air seems to be that sketching out anything less than a body-language haiku means one hasn’t risen to the occasion.

    So the temptation to meet a new Japanese acquaintance more than halfway by going through exaggerated bowing routines apparently overwhelms a lot of people. I’m not just saying that—I’ve seen it happen. Often. (Meanwhile, New Japanese Acquaintance often wears a tight smile that clearly says, “I go through this delicate-mist routine enough with my countrymen, for the love of Amaterasu—can’t we just say hello and get to the part where we order beers?”) I have zero affection for Obama and even less for his political worldview, but I don’t think what he did when meeting Emperor Akihito expressed subservience. He didn’t touch his head to the floor, or anything. He just did that over-enthusiastic thing that people who pride in thinking of themselves as cosmopolitan and aesthetically aware do when confronted with the Land of the Rising Sun: he assumed he could fake it based on goodwill and a Sincere Belief in Diversity. And he looked kinda dumb.

    Added later: What do you mean, you can’t read the kanji in the post title? Let Will (with a major assist from Rodgers and Edwards) tell you. You’ll never forget the (approximate pronunciation of the rarely used informal) equivalent for bow in Japanese again.

    Added after a restorative vodka: This all reminds me of what Phoebe Snow told Esquire magazine decades ago about when her wonderful bluesy voice set her audiences off:

    It makes sense that her taste for rock would send Phoebe Snow back to its origins in black music. Her best work has always involved a blending of the two, rhythm and blues and pop, singing that’s sweet and rough at the same time. It’s certainly no coincidence that a healthy number of blacks always frequent her shows. “I feel like an honorary black, and I’m flattered,” she jokes. “But when they yell out, ‘Get down, sis-tuh,’ I tend to feel whiter than ever. ‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I believe I will get down now.'”

    I sometimes think that one of the reasons I was able to make so many lasting friends in Japan is that I was very happy being American and didn’t do that trying-to-convert-into-a-Japanese-person thing, which many Japanese people read as a little creepy. I don’t say that because I think Obama was going that far; I’m just noting that being confident in your own identity can be a good thing—preferable to trying to affect behaviors that you don’t understand well enough to pull off.

    Added on 22 November: Rondi says that Chris Matthews tried to flub off Obama’s bow because the Japanese believe their emperor is divine. I didn’t see the broadcast, but I trust Rondi’s judgment (and memory). What the hell? Rondi sets things straight.

    6 Responses to “Gettin’ 辞儀 with it”

    1. Jafe says:

      I’m so glad you posted on this. I had the same reflexive reactions as the others – “Sean probably knows the meaning of the bow; he lived in Japan” but I was too lazy to inquire. Your response was much better, more amusing and educational than my guess.

    2. Marzo says:

      What Jafe said; I was waiting to read your take on this. My first thought (well, after “What!?“) was along the lines that he doesn’t fully realize that he is now a head of state. Especially coming after that other bow to the Saudi king, I think it was.

    3. Sean says:

      Thanks, Jafe, Marzo. Yeah, I think the problem—I mentioned it again in the post I just put up—is more being jumped-up than being, strictly speaking, sycophantic, or trying to apologize for America.

    4. Marzo says:

      > “I’m so totally shaking hands with an emperor—this is so cool!”

      XD That’s it!

      Plus an exotism factor, for increased coolness? What I know of his record would seem to support it: King of Arabia, bow. Emperor of Japan, bow. Queen of England, no bow (or maybe he just had his lesson fresh).

    5. Sean says:

      LOL. Yes, I think that’s a lot of it, too.

    6. Robohobo says:

      I like this comment from Westsoundmodern:

      “Foreigners are not expected to bow, as they lack the requisite knowledge of the elaborate etiquette governing this for at least 1000 years.

      This BHO bow, because of its degree of declination and the shamefully rounded back, is in Japanese eyes the bow of a crippled toilet attendant to his supreme master.
      Posted by: Takuan Seiyo”

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