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.