November 14, 2009


UPDATE: Reader Thomas Hoyt writes:

I lived in Japan for seven years and have a BA and almost an MA (still working on the thesis – sigh) in East Asian Studies.

Obama’s bow to the Saudi king was a breach of etiquette and a horrible symbolic act, but bowing in Japan is like shaking hands in America. Anytime you introduce yourself to someone, you bow, regardless of whether it’s the plumber come to fix your sink, your new assistant in the office, or the emperor. It is a common courtesy that has none of the meaning of bowing to a monarch that we have in the West. Refusing to bow, whether to your new assistant or the emperor, has the same insulting connotation as refusing to shake hands does in the US.

The faux pas here, if there is one, is shaking hands while bowing. This is a somewhat common and humorous problem when an American meets a Japanese person in Japan. The American bows and the Japanese person reaches out to shake hands, each trying to anticipate the cultural expectations of the other.

While all humans are created equal, not all bows are. This one seems appropriate.

Several others sent similar observations, though quite a few also noted that after the Saudi-bow debacle, Obama’s protocol people should have worked something out here. . . .

ANOTHER UPDATE: On the other hand, here’s The New York Times criticizing Bill Clinton for bowing to Akihito in 1994. Plus, this delightfully Whoopi-Goldberg-esque defense from the Clinton White House:

Administration officials scurried to insist that the eager-to-please President had not really done the unthinkable.

“It was not a bow-bow, if you know what I mean,” said Ambassador Molly Raiser, the chief of protocol.

Well, okay then.

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