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Introduction on Obama’s bow

At over six feet tall, the president of the United States was photographed bending to nearly a 90 degree when he greeted the diminutive Emperor Akhito and Empress Michiko of Japan at the Imperial Palace ( 2009). The said incident caused reactions, debates and criticism in the US and Japan.

Americans have varying reactions to what Obama did. The critics of Obama found the bow offensive and treasonous and were impeachable. This is because the sign of deference went against state department protocol which decrees that the president should not bow to anyone. The LA Times Andrew Malcolm compared the bow of Obama to the upright greetings extended to the emperor by Dick Cheney, who is the former US vice-president as well as Douglas McArthur, the latter observed during the US occupation of Japan after the World War II. According to Malcolm, the ‘wow bow’ of Obama was undignified and showed a lack of understanding about the history between the two countries. The Washington Times called the bow a “shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate”, which is in contrary to the tradition of Americans to not defer to royalty. With this, by bowing over in order to show great respect, Obama belittled the power and independence of the United States. Thus, the Washington Times add that the said act is a traditional obeisance which befits the subject of the king, not his peer ( 2009). Above all, critics say that it is a disgrace to America; particularly the Emperor is the son of the wartime Emperor Hirohito. According to, “there is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone. Our friends and allies don’t expect it, and our enemies see it as a sign of weakness.” (Maniquet 2009).

On the other hand, there are some Americans who see the act as a sign of respect. The senior administration official stated that Obama just observed the protocol by bowing. As a matter of fact, Obama is not the first president to come under the criticism for treating royal hosts and visitors, it include Clinton and Bush. Some media said that the attitude of Obama was, “this is an elderly gentleman in a country where this kind of greeting is customary, thus it does not seem extraordinary to show this kind of gesture of him.” (Montopoli 2009). Furthermore, the poll of the Fox news said that 67% of Americans thought that the bow was a good thing for Obama to do (Montopoli 2009).

On the other hand, unlike the American, Japanese people take the issue not that serious. The said event did not create any noise in the media, but was reported as normal. The Japanese person sees the act of Obama as nice and very gentlemanly. The following are some of the comments: 

“Such a deep bow from Obama, what a fine guy.”

“I’m surprised he bowed. He’s really trying hard to meet the Japanese way!”

“President Obama is a top-class person, isn’t he? Amazing!”

“Obama has more of a true Japanese heart than most Japanese do.”

            With this, it shows that the reactions of Japanese people are more positive than those of Americans.

Why Is There A Difference In Reactions?

When one addresses the topic human, one has to speak of culture, the unique characteristic that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom or world of living things. Whereas most animals learn and create, the human animal has taken such ability to a level achieved by none other. Culture is the basis for the vast majority of human thought and behavior, along with whatever is produced from these. Culture distinguishes and helps to define the human, just as the wings of the bird or the fins of the fish serve to separate and distinguish these animals. Whereas for other members of the animal world adaptations or adjustments to the physical environment are, for the most part, the result of biological adaptation and inherited physical characteristics, adaptation for humans goes well beyond their biological inheritance. Humans create, learn, and use culture to respond to environment, control it, and even change it. Culture represents that unique ability of the species to gain significant control over aspects of the natural environment and even their own biology, within which the cultural capacity is grounded. Culture is used by people to create the socio cultural environment, to which they must also adjust or adapt. This socio cultural environment can overlie the natural environment (Banks, 1996). Culture exists in the natural environment, creates the socio cultural environment, and is also used to adapt to both those environments (Ali, 2003). It is used by humans as the mitigating factor between themselves and the environment, to respond to the limitations or problems imposed by the environment that directly affect their survival. No other animal has this capability, and no other animal has created culture. Regardless of where they may be located, all humans have culture. This means that at least on one level, all humans are basically the same not necessarily equal but similar in that they all create and use culture for the same basic purpose. At the same time that culture can be used to characterize humans as a group distinct from other animals, it is also used to differentiate between groups of humans. Because culture represents the primary means by which people live and adjust to the problems and conditions of their environments, it also represents the end result of choices made by them from among all the alternatives that are available to solve their problems, given the particular circumstances in which they find, or create for, themselves (Naylor, 1996).

 In the context of adapting to particular environments, culture is inextricably tied to change. Within all cultures there must be some provision for coping with, or adjusting or adapting to, new conditions or problems that arise in the natural and socio cultural environments, both of which are always in a state of flux. The ability to change is an essential process if a culture and the people who share it are to survive. Human groups unable to meet the challenges, problems, or pressures of new circumstances are not likely to survive, nor will their cultures (Darder, 1995). Change has always been an aspect of human culture, but now it means very different things than it did in the past: in the kinds of changes experienced the circumstances by which change is made necessary, and its scale. In the earlier periods of human history and prehistory, change was not always as apparent as it may be today. In some periods, it appeared to come about very slowly, even imperceptibly in some cases. But as culture developed, and as humans increasingly affected the physical and socio cultural environments through their activities and accomplishments, change became much more extensive and occurred with greater frequency (Weedon, 2004). As populations grew and as civilization made its appearance, things became even more complicated. With increased contacts among groups of people, the scale and speed of change has shifted even more dramatically. With the development of trade, improved transportation and communications, the world of humans became a dependent one. This emphasizes the relationship among change, culture, and contact as never before. To speak of change is to recognize the culture context from which humans function, for although change can come from a great many different sources and address many things, humans deal with it, respond to it, and occasion it based on their cultures (Davis et al., 2004).There were varying reactions to Obama’s bow to the Japanese emperor. This is due to the varying cultures of individuals. Not all believes that what he did was an act of kindness and respect. Some has a culture that depicts themselves as the most powerful people and thus they should not bow to anyone.

American and Japanese Culture

The culture of Americans and the Japanese are different and focuses on different things. Many Americans see their culture as defined by some ideas tied to freedom, politics, economics, change, and its countless contradictions. The United States as the land of the free is certainly one of the main themes that members of this cultural group will relate to the outsider. The idea of freedom is intricately tied to their beliefs in the individual and the freedom of the individual, which presupposes Americans as tolerant and nonconformist, as well. These things underlie many other things they tend to believe about themselves. Certainly, the ideal of democracy is another of the first things Americans will use to characterize their culture and many of them see this as creating the capitalist government and an extremely cumbersome legal system (Fehrenbach & Poiger, 2000). America also is perceived as a constantly changing culture, a peaceful one, a culture centered on the nuclear family and socioeconomic classes organized around wealth. This usually sets off a listing of other things that are American; an economically driven system with a materialistic orientation, a capitalist system, the worship of money for its own sake, the credit card economy, and so forth. Generally, while pointing out that their culture is one of peace, Americans recognize the apparent contradiction generated by the amount of violence in their world (Naylor, 1998).

Americans recognize their own tolerance for difference is contradicted by the continuation of cultural bias tied to racism, sexism, and the realities of multiple social classes. While Americans see their world as one of nonconformity, the need for conformity, meaning a need for social order, is not lost on them. They also freely admit that the much-touted work ethic is counterbalanced by the laziness displayed by many of their fellow Americans and the seemingly overemphasized leisure activities that consume considerable amounts of their time and wealth. American culture is seen as an individually centered society, with an emphasis on self-reliance (Hayashi & Kuroda, 1997). Depending on what part of the world the perception comes from, the character of American culture will change. Americans are seen as loud, bold, brash, clumsy, good-hearted, and generous to a fault. They appear eager to share, in fact insist on sharing, their wealth and ideology with the entire world, particularly their political or democratic ideology, which they huckster to the entire world. Their government is seen as nothing more than a series of social contracts. They sell their education on a per hour basis. Their marriages are shallow and easily broken. Most outsiders see no work ethic among Americans, but readily recognize Americans as racist, with superiority/inferiority tied to cultural characteristics or physical difference and origins. The Japanese Emperor is defined as the cultural centre and symbolic authority of the Japanese nation, that which supposedly endows the territorially bound and culturally defined national space with a sense of unity of purpose and shared meaning. In some people’s view, the cultural space is virtually incompatible with the modern political system of governance by a rational and codified set of laws. As many contemporary critics have pointed out this formulation is flawed; for rather than Japanese cultural particulars being incompatible with its Constitution, it is those aspects of Japanese experience that cannot be reduced to rational legal codes and governmental structures that have come to be labeled Japanese culture. In this sense Japanese culture is constantly recreated in terms of what is excluded from the modern institutional structure (Iida, 2001).


            The incident of Obama’s bow shows the problem that can cause by differences in culture. America and Japan are considered as two of the most powerful countries in the world. These two countries are continuously striving in order to improve their respective economy, with this, it is expected that these two countries will continue to create connection and link for future development. However, it is still important to focus on the difference of the culture, particularly because the American people acquire superiority and freedom, this is also the same with the Japanese people, which mainly focus on respect and authority, however how to handle and show it is entirely different. Based on this, in order to prevent future conflict, it is vital to focus on implementing effective intercultural communication. This will enable leaders of countries to understand culture and traditions of other countries, which will help to improve relationship and link.


Ali, S. (2003). Mixed-race, post-race: Gender, new ethnicities, and cultural practices. New York: Berg.

Banks, M. (1996). Ethnicity: Anthropological constructions. London: Routledge.

Best, A., Hanhimäki, J.M., Maiolo, J.A. & Schulze, K.E. (2004).  International history of  the twentieth century. London: Routledge.

Darder, A. (Eds.). (1995). Culture and difference: Critical perspectives on the bicultural experience in the United States.  Westport, CT:  Bergin & Garvey.

Davis, G.V., Delrez, M., Ledent, B. & Marsden, P.H. (2004). Towards a transcultural future: Literature and society in a post-colonial world. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Davis, J.W. (1995). The American presidency. Westport, CT: Praeger. 

Fehrenbach, H. & Poiger, U.G. (2000). Transactions, transgressions, transformations: American culture in western Europe and Japan. New York: Berghahn Books. 

Hayashi, C. & Kuroda, Y. (1997). Japanese culture in comparative perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Iida, Y. (2001). Rethinking identity in modern Japan: Nationalism as aesthetics. London:  Routledge.

Maniquet, S. (2009). Dick Cheney Calls Barack Obama’s Bow to Japanese Emperor’ a Sign of Weakness. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from National post:

Montopoli, B. (2009). Official: Reaction to Japan Bow Left Obama “Speechless”. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from CASHEWS: . 

Naylor, L.L. (1998). American culture: Myth and reality of a culture of diversity. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Naylor, L.L. (1996). Culture and change: An introduction.         Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey. (2009). Barack Obama Criticized for ‘Treasonous’ Bow to Japanese Emperor. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from Telegraph: http://www.telegraph

Weedon, C. (2004). Identity and culture. Maidenhead, England:Open University Press.



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