President Obama is currently under fire for his obvious yet unreciprocated bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito. The conservatives defined this deference as an inappropriate gesture for a President of the United States, while the president’s defenders noted this showed Mr. Obama’s cultural sensitivities. No matter what symbolisms meant, this marks another episode in faux-pas-ridden relations between the U.S. and its former WWII enemy.
When Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan during the WWII, visited the U.S. in 1971, President Richard Nixon bowed to him. In November 1974, Gerald Ford became the first sitting president to visit Japan. He didn’t pack his formal trousers, and attended an imperial ceremony in Japan’s extremely formal court in borrowed trousers which were too short for the president. The media had a field day, but Ford–who was an Eagle Scout–joked that scouting still ran in his veins and that his visit to Japan proved that he still liked to go around in short pants.
[President Ford also encouraged people to wear “WIN” buttons as part of a plan to “Whip Inflation Now.” Bob Hope joked about Ford’s trip to Japan, “Hirohito gave the president a jeweled sword with a crest of the Imperial Order of the Setting Sun, and the President gave him a WIN button. The president told him, ‘Millions of Americans are wearing these.’ And Hirohito said, ‘I know. We make them.’]
In 1992, on his state visit, President George H.W. Bush vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Earlier in 1989, while attending Emperor Hirohito’s funeral, Bush committed the same controversy as Obama by bowing deeply in front of the emperor’s casket. The issue was further complicated by the fact that as a flight-pilot, Bush was shot out of the sky by the Japanese. While being pressed about his bow, Bush wavered, noting members of his squadron who never came home, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s decision to keep the emperor system.
In 1994, Bill Clinton was criticized for almost bowing to Akihito. Liberal The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t a bow, exactly. But Mr. Clinton came close. He inclined his head and shoulders forward, he pressed his hands together. It lasted no longer than a snapshot, but the image on the South Lawn was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of Japan.”
(Above photo was by Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse)