New York Etiquette Guide

Etiquette Expert NYC grades Obama's bow-wow in Japan

Posted on Wed, Nov 18, 2009

Daily News President Obama in Japan

by Lyudmila Bloch, Etiquette Expert NYC

Those of us who have visited Japan, worked or lived there, know that Japanese people bow all day long. I personally have great respect and admiration for Japanese culture, having learned about cultural subtleties when I stayed in Tokyo on a prolonged business trip. The bow - ojigi in Japanese – is a traditional way of greeting and showing respect. There are also rules to follow when one is greeted with a bow.

First of all, observe carefully and bow back at the same depth and angle as you have been bowed to.The angle in a casual bow is about 15 degrees from the vertical position, and your hands are not touching the other person. If you are a man, your hands are “glued” to the sides of your body; if you are a woman, your fingertips are slightly touching in front of your body. Your feet are in a V-shape position – touching at the heels and pointing outward. Lower your chin and eyes as you make a bow, especially if you are bowing to an elder or very important person.The depth of the bow shows respect and indicates the status of the two people.

Japanese is a unique culture that honors a traditional system with many distinct honorifics and forms of address. Even translators take their time in choosing a proper form of address when working with politicians or businesspeople. Inappropriate choice of words can be interpreted as offensive.

The Japanese are very aware of Western traditions, and it’s perfectly OK to greet a Westerner with a handshake. The Japanese handshake is gentle, prolonged and does not reflect the strength or character of the greeter. It’s not your All-American handshake (web-to-web).

Unfortunately, when President Obama recently greeted Japanese Emperor Akihito with a deep bow (at almost 90 degrees), and a handshake at the same time, those gestures were over the top.  Japan is parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch – its emperor. The emperor is the chief of state as are our presidents.  Two individuals of equal rank greet each other in the same way. Did you see the Emperor bowing from his waist down and stretching to reach Obama’s hand? No. The keywords are appropriate and subtle. The bow must demonstrate a delicate balance between respect, proper protocol, and appreciation for the Japanese tradition concerning age and rank.

Excessive, emotional, or dramatic gestures may be interpreted as naïve or confusing. Insufficient knowledge of Japanese culture, traditions, and protocol was clearly in evidence. One needs to do it right, and not overdo it! For all wonderful intentions, President Obama has committed a cultural-etiquette faux pas while greeting the Emperor. Etiquette Expert NYC gives the President a C-grade for his bow-wow in Japan!


Tags: respect, proper protocol, cross-cultural etiquette, proper form of address, handshake, leadership skills, business etiquette tips