To Bow or Not to Bow?

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Barack Obama is taking heat from critics for this image of him bowing to Emperor Akihito in Japan last week. The U.S. president does seem to have overdone it a little bit by, in the words of one Japan scholar, "trying to impress with Karate Kid-level knowledge of Japanese customs." But it's not the first awkward encounter between a president and royalty.


Obama's penchant for bowing to royals became evident during his first meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the G-20 summit in London last April. After he was criticized for the gesture, the White House denied it was a bow, saying that the president had just bent to speak to the much shorter king.


Abdullah is used to this sort of treatment. President George W. Bush was famously photographed holding hands, kissing, and, yes, bowing to the Saudi king. Proof, if you ever needed it, that 267 billion barrels of proven oil reserves can buy you love.


Bush also bowed his head to Pope Benedict when they met at the Vatican in 2007. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, an Italian-American Catholic, also kissed his papal ring in March 2008.


Obama is also not the first U.S. president to bow to the emperor of Japan. Richard Nixon bowed to Akihito's father Emperor Hirohito -- not only a foreign monarch but a former wartime adversary -- during a state visit in 1971 and George H.W. Bush bowed deeply before the emperor's coffin at his funeral in 1989. (Both presidents were veterans of the pacific theater in World War II.) Bush would later famously throw up on the Japanese prime minister, so all-in-all he probably came out even.

Despite these precedents, Bill Clinton took some heat for inclining his head toward Akihito during a state dinner in 1994. In true Clintonian fashion, his chief of protocol assured the press that it was "not a bow-bow."


"If I see another king, I think I shall bite him," Teddy Roosevelt once said, but unfortunately this option isn't really available to most U.S. leaders, who have to walk the line between maintaining America's democratic traditions and showing appropriate respect for a foreign monarch. Some of the same critics who attacked President Obama for his bows. criticized Michelle Obama, shown here towering over the British monarch, for breaking protocol by touching Queen Elizabeth on the back.

To avoid any trouble, the best option is usually a nice firm handshake.



…that can get you into trouble too. 

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