Hey, Mr. President, You Bow to No One!

by Julian Ku


I’m fascinated by the mini-kerfuffle (on the Right at least) over President Obama’s propensity to bow when meeting foreign heads of state who are also royalty (see his super-bow to the Emperor of Japan to the right).  In the old days, this type of stuff was really important.  Students of Chinese history may recall that one of the first British emissaries to the Chinese emperor refused to “kowtow”(叩頭)as a matter of principle since it symbolized submission to the authority of the foreign sovereign.  These days, it is just amusing blogfodder.   I don’t know why the President feels a need to bow to royalty, since as this link shows, no one else who meets with the Japanese Emperor feels a need to do so. I guess he’s just overly polite.  But he’s the U.S. President. He bows to no one!


18 Responses

  1. Dear Julian,

    Why would you think that the President of the US does not bow to anyone…? Do you think that other heads of State should bow to the US President in stead? Or did you merely mean to express that heads of State do not have to bow to each other as the international community is based (theoretically/legally speaking) on the principle of sovereign equality of States… I think it’s unnecessary to have such a negative or limited take on the ritual of bowing. It’s an expression of respect more than of submission I would say (although admittedly submission is part of that), and I assume that Obama has informed himself about Japanese etiquette, and the most appropriate way to make clear to the Japanese emperor that he’s being regarded as an equal, and not as head of an inferior State. Don’t you think Obama is paying respect to create an atmosphere of trust which not he himself will benefit from directly, but the US? Perhaps the ‘realistic’ camp would consider this to a sign of weakness, but I think it’s a sign of weakness not to be able to bow down, because you are afraid this will portray weakness… Obama certainly does not have to bow, which makes it all the more courteous when he does.

  2. I thought in Japanese culture the person who bows (or bows lowest) is indicating their lower status.  From what I understand, the Japanese Emporer did not bow in return.

  3. Response…He is just building relationship

  4. Generally, I wouldn’t be too bothered by the President bowing to another head of state.  That sentiment is limited to situations where the president is bowing as part of custom.  Here, it is suggested that no other heads of state bow to the Japanese Emperor.  It seems strange to me that the President would bow to someone just to be polite.  This also seems different from the initial hullabaloo when the President nodded his head to the King of Saudi Arabia.  The Right made a big deal out of a head nod, just to take jabs at the President, suggesting submission to the Arab world.  Here, Mr. Obama engages in a more submissive move, but since its to a Japanese figurehead, the Right hasn’t clung to it nearly as much.  All in all, body language can be interpreted many ways, but I think that the President shouldn’t engage in completely submissive body language regardless of who he is interacting with.

  5. I admit I always “lean in” to handshakes, which I guess people could interpret as a bow.  That’s obviously not what’s happening here.

    It is kind of… irksome.  Americans in general don’t bow to royalty, having made our views on the subject of monarchy abundantly clear over the years.

    As a practical matter, it’s irrelevant.  I doubt anyone in Japan’s government is more than perhaps vaguely amused.

  6. As an Obama supporter, I agree that it is distasteful for the American President to bow to foreign monarchs. While a bow in many cultures is merely evidence of respect, in the foreign policy context bowing is respect payed to the sovereign. No one would bow to Prime Minister Brown, but it would be appropriate when meeting the Queen. While the US Constitution vests sovereignty in “We the People,” the office of President has long been recognized as the physical embodiment of American sovereignty abroad. Consequently, when the American President meets a foreign leader he is acting both as prime minister of government and US sovereign. Setting aside notions of American exceptionalism, when a sovereign meets another sovereign, there is a presumption of equality in international law. When President Obama bows to a foreign sovereign, he shows an inappropriate level of deference to a co-sovereign. The Queen of England, Saudi King and Japanese Emperor do not bow by custom to all foreign leaders, and neither should the American President.

  7. Follow up, my wife, who lived in Japan for some time, thinks he was just bowing as per standard Japanese greeting, rather than anything particularly to do with him being the Emperor.

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

  8. Great response GH!

  9. Having spent some years in Japan I would advise that bowing is the Japanese equivalent of a handshake.  It is a polite greeting, nothing more, nothing less.  In any event, have a look at President Eisenhower here:


    Much ado about nothing, folks.

  10. I thought bowing was the equivalent of a handshake when both parties bowed.   I thought the Japanese emporer did not bow in return . . .

  11. humblelawstudent, the fact that the Emperor did not return the bow would then say more about the Japanese Emperor’s stance than about Obama’s “submission”.

    Maybe Obama should also stop writing the names of other Heads of State with a capital, just to be sure not to seem subservient and “overly polite”…

  12. Bowing is a part of the tradition and customs in Japan, and it is actually refreshing to see a President respect the traditions and culture of another nation. We need to get over ourselves and stop thinking that we are better than others just because we are the US or because they have different traditions and cultures. The President probably gained more diplomatic clout and favor by following their customs and respecting them on their land by that bow than any other possible action at the time. It is time that we move away from our view of ourselves as elitists in the world and become responsible world citizens who respect the traditions, cultures and autonomy of other people.

  13. This criticism of President Obama for bowing is both misplaced, and it reflects poorly on American culture. The suggestion that by bowing he was adopting the position of supplicant, acknowledging some other sovereign, or otherwise undermining the stature of his office, is absurd.

    The fact is that bowing is the standard form of greeting in Japan. It is only polite to bow, and for those who have lived in Japan for any length of time it becomes automatic. It is true that in the formal etiquette, the person of higher status bows less deeply than the subordinate  – but to the extent that the Emperor bowed less (he did actually give a slight bow), criticism should be directed at him, not the President. On the other hand, the Emperor shook hands with Obama, which is concession to Western culture, since the Emperor would not normally shake hands with a Japanese official (they would both simply bow). And while you would expect that this protocol would have been worked out meticulously in advance, the Emperor actually looks a little nonplussed when Obama bows in traditional Japanese form (the video is on YouTube).

    President Obama, more than any other President I can think of, takes pains to show great respect for the local culture and language. His pronunciation of Japanese names, during his speech in Tokyo, was flawless. Apparently he opened his speech in Shanghai with a greeting not in Mandrin, but the local dialect – to the delight of the crowd. These marks of respect have an impact, and you can be sure that, to the extent any importance is placed on gestures and symbols at all, the Japanese are not chuckling over Obama debasing himself before the Emperor, but rather they are warmed by the effort made to show respect for their culture.

    And frankly, the idea that the President of the U.S. should never bow or otherwise show any deference of any kind for any other person on the planet, is suggestive of the kind of American exceptionalism that cultivates resentment in the rest of the world. It is reminiscent of the hubris of the Middle Kingdom itself (speaking of Kowtowing), which saw itself as the centre of the civilized world, with all mankind owing allegiance and supplication to its Emperor.

  14. Isn’t it funny how these kinds of non-academic, real-life-situation posts usually receive many more comments compared to the overly-theoretical-to-the-point-of-being-unhelpful posts?

    I’m not trying to be mean to Julian or anything like that. Just pointing this out.

  15. Any kind of post which discusses the more arcane points of international law is likely to have a small audience who is familiar enough to actually say something definitive on the matter.

  16. I think that this just speaks to a larger theme of the Obama administration — giving ground on meaningless issues (bowing to a foreign monarch) to reach good will on more important (strong personal relationships can pave roads for consensus on real issues).  I’m not saying that this relationship matters.  What does the Japanese emperor actually do, anyway?  Regardless, Obama is by no means the first or only President to bow or commit to a foreign formality.  Dwight was all about it!!

  17. To M. Gross:

    But isn’t discussing the arcane points of international law one of the main reasons why Opinio Juris exists in the first place?

  18. I think the criticism of Obama bowing the Japanese Emperor is indicative of the zero-sum mentality people hold when it comes to politics. This belief, of course, is not applicable in all instances. Least we forget, Japan is one of the United State’s biggest trade partner and a reliable ally.

    The Conservative Right, without fail, argues that the President, as representative of the American people, should not bow to a “king” or “emperor.” This argument, however, equates a bow (in the modern context) as a sign of submission. “Obama’s propensity to bow” should not be construed as a sign of weakness, but rather as someone who is cognizant of (and respects) other nations cultural sensitivities (something the previous administration failed to do).

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