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What’s with the odd outrage over Obama’s bow in Japan?

I don’t think I’m the only person who was puzzled by the outrage expressed by a number of politicians and pundits with regard to the bow President Barack Obama recently presented to Japan’s emperor and empress.

The outrage strikes me as odd because, for one thing, whenever Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II decides to drop in on her former colonies, the curtsies and bows performed by American protocol officers and the rich and/or famous who get to meet the queen are too numerous to count or measure for depth. And that’s not including the money the taxpayers spend on the lavish white-tie dinners and other entertainments that are given by our government in the queen’s honor. 

But I think the issue in question goes well beyond whatever respect we show for a monarch from a nation that ruled us more than two centuries ago and that which we show for one from a nation we defeated in a horrible war that ended 64 years ago. It goes beyond the fact that the Obama administration is still working to repair a world opinion of America that has been in some measure of tatter for a fair number of years.  Or even the fact that the new Japanese government has signaled that it is no longer interested in automatically approving military assistance plans involving Japan, but mostly devised by the Americans.

No, I think the greater matter of puzzle is the fact that some seem to think it is OK for people to pay all manner of homage (and, in some cases, near deification) to celebrities ranging from entertainers to professional athletes, but it is not acceptable for a relatively young and new American president to show a brief measure of courtesy to an elderly monarch representing a nation that reveres such courtesy and ceremony. And one representing a nation that happens to still be a very important American ally and trading partner.

Homage to celebrities
We throw wild parades for athletes making tens of millions of dollars, yet never think of charging them one dime for any of the property destruction that often occurs at such events. Far too many people have no interest whatsoever in matters such as international trade or the complicated details of peace negotiations (or, for that matter, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but race to the TV or the computer screen every night to watch programs flaunting celebrity bad behavior or plastic-surgery mistakes that now absolutely obliterate evening news programs in the ratings.

One can only wonder what distant generations will think of ceremonies such as the Academy Awards and the scads of other award programs the entertainment industry markets for celebrity adulation. Will they think of today’s entertainers and athletes as the monarchs of our age? Will they question our reasoning, as those who have bothered to learn about ancient Rome’s gladiators question the thinking behind that civilization’s shows of senseless gore and quests for glory?  Will they write us off as a group of rather prosperous yet all too silly buffoons?

Until we begin to seriously question our daily coronation of today’s cadre of celebrities and those who aspire to celebrity, I think it is rather petty to criticize the president for displaying a perhaps antiquated, but certainly harmless, symbol of respect to a foreign monarch.

We have far, far more urgent problems — such as unemployment, climate change, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that are worthy of criticism and action. These are the matters that deserve our collective outrage and our attention.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Tom Miller on 11/18/2009 - 07:50 am.

    Bowing in Japan is like a handshake in America. You just do it as a simple sign of respect when you meet someone.

    And in the times of H1N1, it might be healthier that a handshake, too.

  2. Submitted by Ed Stych on 11/18/2009 - 10:28 am.

    Speaking of “antiquated,” the handshake might become “antiquated” if people don’t get over this H1N1 hysteria.

    Under the logic of the fear mongers, we should never shake hands or hug again, because there will always be the possibility of getting the flu … some type of flu … today, next summer, 12 months from now, five years from now. Is this really the kind of fearful society you want to create? And how many of these diseases are airborne? Quick, everyone go live in a bubble!

    Wash your hands and go out and shake a hand and give a hug! Life is risky, people.

  3. Submitted by Tim Walker on 11/18/2009 - 11:11 am.

    There’s no mystery here. As the linked news article points out, the critics were right-wingers (Kristol, Bennet) who would criticize President Obama no matter what he did.

    They are haters, pure and simple.

  4. Submitted by myles spicer on 11/18/2009 - 11:43 am.

    As pointed out above, this has nothing to do with “bowing”. The far right is totally committed to destroying Obama (and ironically harming America in the process) with whatever reason, fiction or tool they need to do it.

    Whether it be the “Birthers”, those who still claim he is a Muslim, those who keep trying to attach him to unsavory associates, nonsense objections to health care reform…whatever, this will go on his entire adminstration. Very simply, they are OBSESSED with his demise. We better get used to it, and hope his term(s) will end with a positive outcome for our country.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/18/2009 - 01:25 pm.

    10.2% unemployment and rising. US debt tripled in 12 months. Millions (billions?) of borrowed dollars spent in congressional districts that do not exist; rational explanations not forthcoming. Afaghanistan plan AWOL. Health care “reform” that builds on a legacy of fraud and waste.

    Yes, Obama’s penchant for bowing and scraping is the least of our worries.

  6. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/18/2009 - 02:32 pm.

    The President, by tradition, has NEVER bowed to anyone. The First Lady does not “courtsy” to the Queen or anyone, either.

    Obama is changing that to reflect a greater sensitivity to other customs, since bowing does not mean the same thing in Japan that it does here. I support him in this.

    However, it is a big change in protocol. If the left wants to support Obama, it should understand its history a little better and acknowledge the bravery of our President for breaking a tradition that is antiquated.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/18/2009 - 03:36 pm.

    Absolutely correct. But I think the instant right-wing reaction to Obama’s simple gesture of respect (like saluting a general) is part of the organized effort on the part of the Right to hurt his reputation and effectiveness in any way possible.

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/18/2009 - 03:38 pm.

    Thomas: Would you identify those non-existent districts, please? Thank you.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/19/2009 - 07:20 am.

    For sheer disruptive value, no uncle who hogs the gravy can match those fact challenged anecdotes that on occasion posted here.

  10. Submitted by Tim Walker on 11/19/2009 - 08:23 am.

    Thomas: Can you please articulate the Afghanistan plan prior to January 20, 2009?

    If you choose to say that the Afghanistan plan is AWOL, you must be honest about it and agree that it was AWOL long before President Obama took office.

    If not, please explain why you are concerned about it being “AWOL” just for the last month, and not in the previous six years?

  11. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/19/2009 - 11:15 am.

    I speak Japanese, have lived in Japan, and have visited twelve times since then.

    Bowing is such a part of Japanese culture that it becomes an automatic part of one’s gestures when speaking Japanese. You bow when greeting people, when uttering courtesy expressions such as “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” and when saying good-bye. There’s even a kind of sideways “bow on the run” that you use when you encounter a friend or acquaintance going in the opposite direction.

    I’m not a great fan of President Obama, and I often criticize him on things he has actually done or failed to do, but his right-wing critics remind me of my grandmother’s Old Country proverb: “If you want to beat a dog, you can always find a stick.”

  12. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 11/19/2009 - 09:43 pm.

    Mary if you’re puzzled by this you haven’t been paying attention. Its called Faux Outrage. Conservatives gin it up as often as the can. Its one of the few things that they are actually good at.

    I suspect most of them prefered the good old days when the president puked on the Emperor’s shoes.

  13. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/23/2009 - 03:38 pm.

    Actually, Bush Senior threw up in the Japanese prime minister’s lap, but that didn’t provoke as much media commentary as Obama’s bow.

  14. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 11/23/2009 - 09:40 pm.

    # 5 says, “Yes, Obama’s penchant for bowing and scraping is the least of our worries.”

    I wonder what alternative scenario Mr. Swift would offer had his side (Republicans) won the White House in 2008?

    Would we be worry-less? Or would they have dug for us a bigger (misery) hole than before?

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