Eugene Cho

we should all learn to bow like obama

Dear Americans,

What is wrong with us?

So, President Obama bows in respect to the Japanese emperor during his recent visit to Japan and the next thing you know, all kind of crazy, nonsensical, and ridunkulous statements are flung through the newspapers, blogosphere, radio shows, and chit chats.

What exactly is wrong with the image above?
What are your reactions to the reactions?

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • The bow is incredibly important in Asian culture – especially in Japanese and Korean culture. And he’s in Japan as a guest…How else do you want him to greet his hosts? Fist bump?
  • In fact, the proper bow is incredibly important. The proper and traditional bow (90 degrees angle) is as Obama is captured on film (some would say minus the handshake).
  • While there are various (and different) reports to the origins of bowing in Asian culture, one thing is very clear: it is a sign of respect – particularly to your hosts and elders. I still bow (although not 90 degrees) to visitors (and members) to my church that are of Asian descent that are older than me.
  • But bowing is also mutual. I’d love to see a videotape of this exchange (if there is one) because I’d be shocked if the Japanese emperor (and his wife) did not respond by bowing as well – in fact, several times.
  • Bowing is a sign of respect but also a sign of Trust and Relationship. One story I read about the origins of bowing comes from the times of the feudal history of Japan. Warriors and samurais would bow to one another (eyes down, head bowed, 90 degrees) to another warrior and in essence, expose their neck (and their lives) to another warrior and his samurai sword.
  • Bowing is beautiful. It reflects the beauty of another culture and people. It reflects respect, trust, and friendship.

And this world needs a little bit more of mutual respect, trust, and friendship.
American needs a little bit more of respect, trust, and friendship.
We should all learn to bow.

And while we’re at it, let’s kick H1N1’s butt and forget the handshake. I think we should all adopt bowing.

Here’s an article from the UK Telegraph that includes some of the nonsense over Obama’s bow. What are your thoughts?

At over six feet tall, the US president was photographed bending to nearly a 90 degree angle when he greeted the relatively diminutive Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace on Saturday.

Right-wing websites criticised the US president for showing deference to the Japanese emperor, with the Drudge Report running a banner headline reading: “Obama bows before Japan’s emperor”.

Critics claimed the sign of deference went against state department protocol, which decrees that presidents bow to no one.

In a blog post titled “How low will he go?” , the LA Times’ Andrew Malcolm compared Mr Obama’s bow unfavourably to the upright greetings extended to the emperor by Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president, and Douglas MacArthur, the latter observed during the US occupation of Japan following the Second World War. Mr Malcolm suggested that Mr Obama’s “wow bow” was undignified and showed a lack of understanding of the history between the two countries.

At least one blogger went as far as to call the president’s actions “treasonous”.

Right-wing commentators unleashed similar criticism in April, when Mr Obama bowed to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during the G20 summit.

The Washington Times called the alleged bow a “shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate”, which ran contrary to American tradition of not deferring to royalty.

“By bending over to show greater respect to Islam, the US president belittled the power and independence of the United States,” the paper said in an editorial. “Such an act is a traditional obeisance befitting a king’s subjects, not his peer.”

But a senior administration official dismissed the criticism , telling Politico that the US president had simply been observing protocol by bowing to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

“I think that those who try to politicise those things are just way, way, way off base,” he told the website.

Mr Obama is not the first US president to come under criticism for his treatment of royal hosts and visitors.

Bill Clinton, the former US president, experienced similar problems when he welcomed the Japanese emperor at the White House. He was widely mocked for slightly inclining his head in a non-committal semi-bow.


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34 Responses

  1. bl78 says:

    Since I am Korean American, if I was President of the US, I would have no problem with this because I understand the Asian culture. Bowing down doesnt say “you are my master and I am your slave”. If I was the President of Japan and Obama didnt bow to greet, I wouldnt feel offended because I dont place high expectations from someone who may not fully understand the Asian culture. Its very kind when its done, but not required.

    Since Im not fully aware of political protocols, I cannot comment from that perspective.

    • chaloner says:

      In American culture you don’t bow down to Royalty. Started during the American Revolutionary War towards the British. Obama is the very first President in History to bow down to Royalty.

  2. […] Oh no, Barack bowed! Barack bows to the Japanese emperor and the world–particularly, but not exclusively, conservative media–goes stupid and interculturally ignorant. Eugene Cho tries to bring some sense to the madness. […]

  3. Danny Bixby says:

    Good post!

    The people who throw a huge fit over Obama bowing to Emperor Akihito, or to King Abdullah, would be crying in their outrage no matter what he did.

    Unfortunately that kind of “ridunkulous” commentary makes its way into the Christian circles as well…you know, because of the overlap.😉

    Polarizing opinions sell. Rage at people respecting others sells. Disrespect sells. Hate sells.

  4. Kyle Reed says:

    I really do not understand why this was even news. It just turns into finding fault with whatever the man does. I think he was showing respect and going out of his way to make sure that he was being respectful.

    I appreciate the gesture and I can learn from him doing this

  5. Dan Hauge says:

    It’s just a textbook example of cultural arrogance (the responses, not the bow): in Western culture bowing means you acknowledge the superiority of the one you bow to, so *That’s What It Means* no matter what, according to these critics. The whole idea that certain words and gestures mean different things in different cultures, and that it is honorable to honor the cultures of others, is absolutely lost on these conservative reactionaries.

  6. RockvilleMMF says:

    Critics of the Obamas will always find something to make them unhappy. You’ll recall the flap raised when the First Lady touched Queen Elizabeth on the shoulder. So what’s the deal? It’s important to show respect to the Queen of England but not to the Emperor of Japan?

  7. randall says:

    Don’t have time to flesh out this idea here but I think it’s no coincidence that our first president of color would understand the importance of honoring cultural differences. Although the handshake and the bow looks a bit odd together, I wonder if it isn’t a completely intentional cross-cultural gesture.

  8. Zach says:

    I am not really sure how this all panned out. But when in Japan, bowing to a person of importance or someone who is older than you shows your respect of that person. Those people of importance may offer the bowee a handshake if they choose and during this time it would be important to shake their hand as well. Like I said, i’m not sure the sequence of the bowing and handshaking. However, he may have been in midbow as the emperor offered his hand to obama. In that case this picture should not be a problem.

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eugene Cho and Kevin D. Hendricks, Dan Ra. Dan Ra said: wholeheartedly agree w. @eugenecho here: pres obama's respectful gesture is a non-issue. it's asian culture. move along. […]

  10. PL says:

    We should wake up to cultural senitivities in this age of multiculturalism in a global world. Perhaps the criticism is the knee-jerk reaction to the reality that America is losing its dominance in the world, and clinging to some silly notion that the POTUS should not bow to any royalty helps protects the belief that we are still superior to … Read Moreeveryone else. Even if we are superior, what’s wrong with showing respect in a way that affirms the host culture? Being raised in different countries perhpas helped PO to be more culturally sensitive. I think there is more than meets the eye with the nitpicking of PO’s cultural sensitivity.

  11. MK says:

    I guess my question to Prez Obama would be, “Why do you feel the need to bow before Royalty?” He is representing the US as the Head of State and is not following the protocol of the President. He would not technically be being disrespectful to the Royal couple if he did not bow.

  12. Dean says:


    I believe Eugene took a stab at answering this question. Specifically, that sometimes “protocol” can be disrespectful in another culture or context and that, by choosing to honor a cultures own respect and behavior, we can often find more openness, honesty and respect in dialogue. Take this out of the political sphere and consider it in the missions/evangelism context, and I think we’ll find this given extreme importance by those who do missions work in other cultures.

    All that to say that I believe showing respect for others cultural workings is honorable and should be expected both politically as Americans seeking to reflect grace and, perhaps separately, Christians seeking to reflect Christ.

  13. Nancy says:

    Such moments are an integral part of Japanese life. You do and say many things because that is how society works. I wonder if part of this controversy has to do with a subconscious reaction to the idea of a Japanese emperor. I would bet that most Americans have little sense of the kind of man Emperor Akihito is and think more of the actions of his father the late Emperor Showa.

  14. Sam says:

    Unfortunately, whatever Obama does is always going to political. I agree that this shouldn’t be a big news. I think people on the Right shouldn’t make big deal out out it and criticize him. At the same time, people on the Left shouldn’t praise him either. This, obviously, is display of Presidents inexperience. There is protocol that presidents follow every time they visit other nations. Never-ever, in the past, President bow to other nations leader. They show respect by firm hand shake. Japanese also understand this protocol.

  15. Sam says:


    I know what you are getting at, but Obama went to Japan not to preach, but for political business. So he is representing the people of US. yes, if Obama went to Japan to preach the gospel, he must act certain way, but he is not. yes, some of the protocol might be respectable to some culture but this is something universally accepted. Japanese leader also understand this protocol and expect it from the president. It is interesting to see that some of the Japanese newspaper are not printing picture of him bowing because it is embarrassing to them.,2933,575417,00.html

  16. Sam, was the president made for the protocol or protocol for the president?

  17. Karen says:

    Great post. Obama’s action of humbling himself & showing honor to another is exactly how Christ would have us treat others, all the time.

  18. John Lunt says:

    As a conservative reactionary, I find it fascinating that President Obama was quick to follow protocols for meeting Emperors and Saudi Kings. However, before he took office when he was a guest of President Bush in the White House he violated protocol by putting his hand on the President’s back. It’s fine to show disrespect for the office of President when another man filled it, but he’s quick to follow it with others. By the way, he did not bow to the Queen of England either, though that is customary.

  19. Frank Honess says:

    Btw, I don’t know if someone already posted this, but the Japanese emperor and his wife did not respond by bowing on the video tape as far as I could see. Do we see any problem with that? I do.

    Don’t get me wrong I’m not a proponent of our President in any sense of the word. I disagree and am against pretty much everything he is and represents. But if you’re going to point out how he bows before world leaders & shakes hands with terrorist & socialist dictators, why don’t you answer me the question why he’s apologized so much to the world and represented this country in such a low esteem?

    We’re not talking about a man who’s proud of this country. We’re talking about a man who can’t even call terrorism what it is (i.e. Fort Hood shootings) and would sit down with Terrorist leaders to talk about life.

    And believe me this is not a conservative/liberal thing. It is what it is.

  20. Frank Honess says:

    I’m with you all the way John Lunt. Great comments.

  21. Frank: “It is what it is” – Please keep in mind the obvious, that what “is” to you (particularly in this context) is a direct result of your world view. It isn’t universal.

    Without digressing too far, what “is” to me is that our country has made many mistakes (so has every nation) and some apologies are legitimate. What “is” to me is that it is arrogant to assume that it is okay to ignore your host’s customs of respect in favor of your own when you are a guest in your host’s home; in this case, Japan.

  22. In response to Sam’s link:

    A counter perspective.

  23. chriswilliamsde says:

    Jesus washed his followers feet? isn’t this kind of humility and deference to others what we should all aspire to?

  24. your friend says:

    I have lived in Asia for 22 years (originally coming from Europe). Bowing belongs to everyday life, it is a greeting. It belongs to the ABC of cultural etiquette to at least try following the most common customs of the host culture.

    Generally speaking, cultural experts agree that insisting on one’s own cultural ways in a host country means either ignorance or egocentricity.

    Who says that the Western way of greeting is standard and should be followed all around the globe?

    A president who respects culture can be more trusted that he also respects people different from his own nation as being equal in worth and importance.

  25. Erick says:

    Don’t know if this has been said, but I find President Obama’s bow and Emperor Akihito’s handshake shows a beautiful portrayal of mutual respect and acceptance. With all of the negative baggage America receives (much of it rightfully so), we should rejoice that a relationship with another nation’s leader is positive.

  26. Erick says:

    And, to answer the question “what is wrong with us (Americans)?”…based on the language used in the article, we are afraid. We are afraid to lose any sense of power/strength, etc. In many ways, we are still that bully in the front of the line who would NEVER let any have ‘heads’

  27. elderj says:

    Protocol is important in diplomatic relations and though as a person Obama is free to do whatever he wishes, he is not acting as an individual but as a representative of the state. While bowing is a general expression of greeting it does also carry implications of deference, i.e. Korean citizens being required to bow towards the emperor’s palace during the Japanese occupation. Rules of diplomatic protocol is more important than the person occupying the office at any given time. It is the same principle that requires military personnel to salute superiors regardless of their personal feelings about the person. They salute the office and not the man. If Obama was visiting Japan as a private citizen his bow might be appropriate, but not as a head of state. He is not his own person, which is something which I think many people don’t quite grasp.

  28. Tyler says:

    thanks for sharing this Eugene.

  29. […] The web is full of fun stuff tonight!!!  Josh has a very insightful reflection on humility and culture on his site, Black WASP about Obama bowing to the Japanese emperor.  Definitely worth a read!  Eugene Cho also weighed in with some good thoughts. […]

  30. […] thinks we should all learn how to bow like Obama did in Japan this week. Yes […]

  31. Wayne Hipley says:

    Very simply, the post title says it all – we should all learn to bow like Obama.

  32. […] school ones caught Obama making an unbiblical bow. Note that Obama is bowing at approx. 90 degrees (bad bad bad!!!) Biblical-Conservative-Republican-Absolute-Truth-Honouring-Christians only bow of  1 degree (any […]

  33. […] Barack bows to the Japanese emperor and the world–particularly, but not exclusively, conservative media–goes interculturally ignorant. Eugene Cho tries to bring some sense to the madness. […]

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