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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.

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.