Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rightwing Fecal Matter Alert: Obama Bows in Japan, World Ends

The rightwing has spewed smelly fecal matter before, but the latest is the most odoriferous in recent memory. Rightwing bloggers and other commentators are having a nervous breakdown because President Obama bowed when he met with Emperor Akihito of Japan.

The blog Hot Air -- which operates as a clearinghouse for rightwing fecal matter -- has unearthed a New York Times article from 1994, which supposedly "blasts" President Clinton for bowing before Akihito. The article, however, does not blast Clinton (or anyone else). Instead, it provides rather campy commentary regarding the uncertainty that United States presidents and their staff have faced when greeting royalty:
There was that curtsy, during the Reagan years, when Lenore Annenberg, herself the chief of protocol, forgot herself entirely and did a little dip to greet a visiting Prince Charles. That prompted a stern warning from Miss Manners against those who might mock the effort that "was once put into freeing Americans from the necessity of bending their knees." Soon afterward, when Nancy Reagan greeted Queen Elizabeth II behind closed doors, her press secretary acknowledged that Mrs. Reagan had bowed her head but insisted, "It was definitely not a curtsy."
The blog American Power keeps the stench going with an essay "Bowing Before Monarchs and Tyrants." Video footage of Obama greeting Akihito accompanies the article lunacy.

The blog's description of Akihito as a "monarch" or "tyrant" demonstrates the paucity of facts in contemporary conservative commentary. A real monarch (as opposed to a constitutional monarch) exercises absolute power and dominion in a country. Emperor Akihito, however, is merely a figurehead.

The Constitution of Japan gives executive power to the Cabinet and legislative authority to the Diet. The Constitution also creates a national judicial system. Furthermore, it states that "[t]he people have the inalienable right to choose their public officials and to dismiss them."

By contrast, the Constitution of Japan describes the Emperor as a "symbol." The Constitution also states that the "Emperor shall perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for in this Constitution and he shall not have powers related to government" (italics added).

Even though Akihito is simply a symbol of state, American Power argues that Obama's bow shows that "the United States now willingly prostrates itself before the rest of the world." This statement is simply diarrhea. It also misuses terminology.

Finally, the conservative outrage in this area is laughable, given the fact that the bow is akin to a handshake. Applying conservative fecal logic, President Obama should not shake hands with the Emperor either -- which begs the question: Why should United States presidents meet with royalty? If bowing concedes power to "monarchs and tyrants," then meeting with them during a diplomatic trip does so as well. Flush.


Richard said...

Professor, I think you - and others defending the president - miss two important points: First, this was a dramatic departure from 220 years of White House protocol regarding interaction with foreign heads of state. Just 15 years ago, the NYT published a piece about a far less obsequious bow Clinton gave to the Emperor noting the questions it had raised and the quick denials/explanations from Administration officials it had prompted. This departure from tradition, if intentional, is remarkable and American citizens are, I believed, entitled to ask what, if anything, it is intended to communicate.

Second, the bow - this kind of bow at this depth - is emphatically not akin to a handshake. I say this based on 16 years of living in Japan. Anybody in this country who makes this argument is simply revealing a remarkable ignorance of Japanese culture and social practices, and a willingness to extrapolate what little they know into general commentary on a society and the meaning of symbolic acts within that society. This is, I'm sure you recognize, the seed of prejudice and evidence of a perverse kind of ethnocentrism, and it enrages me to see people doing this to a country and society that I know so well. You don't know what you're talking about, and you come across quite ridiculously when you criticize your fellow citizens for not understanding another culture when the basis for your criticism is itself grounded in ignorance.

The only way that Obama's bow even approached being culturally appropriate is if you accept that Obama should interact with the Japanese emperor in the same fashion as a Japanese commoner. If you look at the typical manner in which foreign heads of state interact with the Japanese emperor, you will quickly notice that it is not culturally or diplomatically appropriate for heads of state to bow - and to bow so deeply - in situations such as this. Unlike many of the commenters on this issue, I can actually read Japanese, and much of the commentary on Japanese discussion boards notes that Obama's bow expressed even more deference to the Emperor than is typically expressed by Japan's own prime minister. If so, how on earth can defenders of the president claim that this was culturally appropriate?

Reading the Japanese blogs and discussion boards, you see a wide range of opinions on the bow. But one thing is clear: Most Japanese recognized this bow as a dramatic departure from prior protocol, particularly in the depth of the bow (which, contrary to the culturally ignorant statements made by the president's defenders, is far from common in Japan, being limited to deep apologies or interactions with somebody several levels above one in the social/cultural hierarchy). As head of state, this bow was completely inappropriate. You only have to look at photographs of greetings between other leaders and the Japanese Emperor to realize this.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks for your comment. First, I discussed the NY Times essay, and conservatives have misread its content. Also, the article certainly does not purport to offer a comprehensive historiography of every greeting between a US president and royalty. To the extent that you rely upon it as such, this is simply "bad" historical argumentation.

Second, your attempt to offer a sociology of the Japanese bow (versus handshake) does not persuade me either. Both are simply public gestures that people make when greeting others.

In the US context, if someone were to refuse a handshake, that would look offensive because it would deviate from accepted decorum. If Obama had simply folded his arms before the Emperor, this would look "bad" too. But a handshake greets the Emperor as a matter of respect -- just like a bow.

This is the "box" that the conservative fecal argument places a US president. Any communication that does not treat the Emperor as a subordinate (like folding ones arms) is "humiliating." But any communcation that treats the Emperor as a subordinate is humliating as well. So, just as I argued in the article, US presidents simply should not meet with royalty.

PS: I am not defending anyone. I am simply making an argument that rightwing trolls should simply close their bowels!

eric said...

"Lawyers, Guns & Money" has a collection of photos showing un-American internationalist stooge Dwight D. Eisenhower debasing himself and his country by bowing before foreign rulers.

Clearly the John Birch society were right about Ike's being part of the Communist conspiracy to undermine Red-Blooded Americanism.

Richard said...


I'm not sure what you mean when you write "your attempt to offer a sociology of the Japanese bow (versus handshake) does not persuade me either. Both are simply public gestures that people make when greeting others." I could quote for you at length comments from Japanese blogs and discussion boards, and whether approving or ridiculing the president for this bow, they universally recognize Obama's bow as something entirely different and far more deferential than a normal bow of greeting. Some noted that it appeared that Obama was responding to a summons from the emperor to appear before him; others that it was entirely appropriate for the descendant of slaves [an ignorant comment in and of itself]; others remarking that the president must have been overwhelmed by the emperor's aura or that the commenter had never realized that the emperor was so powerful; another remarked that the bow was appropriate since the US President ranks about the same as the foreign minister of Japan. Many remarked that Obama showed the emperor far more respect and deference than any recent Japanese prime minister had.

If you accept that the President of the United States should interact with foreign royalty in the same manner as subjects of that royalty should interact, Obama's bow was entirely appropriate. If you think he should interact as a head of state who has equal standing on the international stage, it was improper and overly obsequious (as the dozens of photos of other nation's leaders interacting with the emperor clearly demonstrate). If you disagree, I'd like to understand why. If it's because a bow is a bow is a bow, then you'll have to forgive me for concluding that you suffer from your own ethnocentrism.

Sue said...

wow, it boggles my mind how a bow can be a bow or not a bow, or a disrespectful or a respectful bow. What a bunch of fecal bow wow... :-)

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Eric: Thanks for the cite! As I argued in my last post, no one really has a working historiography of presidential greetings of royalty.

Richard: If I suffer from ethnocentricism, then the rightwingers who are having a nervous breakdown suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. Pick your poison.

Sue: When rightwingers get computers, anything is possible!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

PS: Richard, if you think that Japanese people are "subjects" of the Emperor in any meaningful way, you did not take the time to read up on Japanese government while you lived there for 16 years. I posted the links to the Constitution of Japan. The Emperor is nothing but a symbol -- which makes your argument (which places an aura of logic around the maniacal rantings of the rightwing) problematic.

Kansas City said...


Personally, I think the bow was inappropriate and a departure from past practice, but not a big deal. It also probably is bad politics, because most Americans don't want our President to bow to anyone. But I am more interested in the nature of your post and your response to Richard.

When you make repeated "fecal" references in your criticism of people, you diminish yourself, not your target.

And when you encounter someone obviously more knowledgeable than yourself, such as Richard, you should respectfully acknowledge his input and factor it into your opinions.

Instead, you make a silly criticism of Richard, i.e., "your attempt to offer a sociology of the Japanese bow," and you try to change the subject, i.e., "folding ones [sic] arms." Now you attempt to seize upon Richard's use of "subject" (which else would you call the relationship between the Japanese and the King?) and attempt to create a debate about the Japan constitution.

I think a little humility from you acknowledging that Richard is far more knowledgeable than you about Japan and moving on would be the best approach.

Richard said...


If you find the term "subject" objectionable - though I meant it in a social and not political sense - perhaps you'll accept "commoner" instead? The nobility-commoner distinction is still recognized in Japanese society; indeed, my Japanese father in law responded to the bow by noting, in all seriousness, that Obama's conduct appropriately reflected his status as a mere commoner standing before royalty. It is my opinion and has apparently long been the opinion of the Department of State that the President and his entourage does not behave as royalty expects commoners of their own country to behave. This president did. I think that is remarkable and noteworthy. I'm not sure why it's so hard for supporters of the President to admit as much.

Kansas City said...


I don't want to pick on you too much, but your new attack on "rightwingers" further diminishes you and is offensive: "the rightwingers who are having a nervous breakdown suffer from paranoid schizophrenia" Paranoid schizophrenia is a very serious and heart breaking illness affecting millions of persons. I suggest you not use such a serious illness in a flippant way to try to make political points.

Richard is both knowledgeable and respectful. Among other things, he makes a good point about how hard it is for you and other supporters of the president to acknowledge any faults.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Kansas City: Welcome back!
Richard: The implication that the Emperor is a true monarch has fueled a lot of the stupidity in the rightwing criticism. He is a figurehead. Alas, Japan will not, as a result of the bow, feel that it can invade the US! Relax.....

Aeneas said...

This is just the personal opinion of a stiff backed person, who bows to no one--I didn't like it when the President bowed. I don't care about protocol, history, blah, blah. My gut reaction--and as a armchair nihilist, it's all in the gut :)--was negative. I brought to mind a photo of Kissinger on a camel and mayor Kock comment "he looked like a" I don't mean to be offensive, but, I'm sorry, speaking my mind here--that bow looked schmocky. It didn't suit him. Too tall...

Now, for the stirring of the matter--yeah, what can I say. Our President sure has a talent to stir it. And Right sure stirs, like twirling Dervishes.

Aeneas said...

Oooops, meant Mayor Koch. ***rolls eyes***

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...


This exchange is downright nostalgic, bringing back fond memories of law school, where every law professor possessed the firm conviction that on any given subject, whether it fell within his narrow specialty or not, he knew more than his students. My favorite memory was the occasion in patent law class when one of the country's leading jurists (who was formerly a tenured professor and was then an adjunct faculty member) gave a guest lecture: He asked the class if they knew what some biological something-or-other was (don't ask me what: I'm no specialist and can freely admit as much); one of my closest friends, who has a PhD in microbiology and had done years of post-doc research in the field provided the technical definition in layperson's terms. He almost had to be physically restrained when said judge/prof - who had no background outside the courtroom in anything related to biology - responded, with the condescending tone that is unique to law professors (is it a feature that's installed when tenure is granted?), "Yes, that's almost right."

All that to say that I find it amusing but entirely unsurprising that a law professor whose specialty is con law and critical race theory thinks it persuasive to suggest without citing any evidence whatsoever that my explanation of Japanese bowing protocol is unconvincing or to assert that my understanding of the Emperor's role in the Japanese political system is deficient (I interned in the small law firm of one of Japan's leading left-of-center (some call him a communist) attorneys and am probably one of the few American attorneys in a major US firm that has a much-thumbed-through Japanese-language copy of the Japanese constitution and civil code sitting on my office bookshelf; I've had the opportunity to meet with a justice of the Japanese Supreme Court in his chambers for a ninety minute discussion on judicial review; and I count many Japanese lawyers, prosecutors, and judges among my friends and acquaintances) or to chide me about the need to chill because Obama's bow won't lead to an invasion by Japan. (Not that a Japanese invasion would be an entirely bad thing, mind you. It would improve our chances of finally getting decent transportation systems in and between our major metropolitan areas and would go a long way to improve the culinary wasteland that is the vast majority of this country (including most major cities). Unfortunately, however, we've pretty much neutered the JSDF's ability to project force anywhere outside the training grounds at Camp Fuji.)

If you want to attack the right for being schizo, that's entirely fine. In fact, it may even be true. But it's just silly to do so with arguments - as you used above in the original post - that are plainly and empirically uninformed and incorrect. Which is the graver error: To misinterpret the role of the Japanese emperor in the Japanese political system (which, to my mind, is completely irrelevant to the question of whether the bow was proper or not) as you accuse the right of doing or to label such people idiots partly on the basis of a demonstrably false understanding of how Obama's conduct was perceived in Japan and to persist in doing so even after someone has politely pointed out that it is in fact false? I'm personally not sure, but I think an objective observer would find the two a great deal more similar than you might care to admit.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Richard: Despite the numerous paragraphs you have written, you still have not pointed to the governmental duties of the Emperor. The Constitution says he has no governmental powers. Instead, it says he is a figure of the State. These are two different things, which you seem to conflate.

Saying that the Emperor has a "role" in the "Japanese political system" does not make him a dictator or tyrant or ruler. Several conservative bloggers have made this argument, which is simply wrong. But with your wealth of knowledge about Japan, I am sure you know this. Your "rebuttal" does not even address this point.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Richard: One other point, you keep mentioning Japan-based "discussion boards" analyzing the issue, but you fail to point to major coverage of the issue among the leading media outlets in the country. Basically, this is a web story masquerading as a national security dialogue.

repsac3 said...

"Second, the bow - this kind of bow at this depth - is emphatically not akin to a handshake."

I can accept that. For reasons that are unclear to me--but that I nevertheless assume are the product of ignorance or misunderstanding of the custom, rather than any intent to apologize or subjugate himself or America to the Emperor or to Japan, as many on the right allege--Obama did bend too low. For anyone who thinks this bow a big deal in the first place, the next question probably ought to be whether they believe Obama made a mistake, or bowed lower than he should have intentionally, with all that implies. (And for those who seriously believe he intended the deep apology or subjugation symbolized by the bow, the next question ought to be what that says about them and their attitudes & beliefs about the US and our president, rather than about Obama or any problems he has.)

While I accept that a bow at that depth is emphatically not akin to a handshake, I also believe that Obama thought it was, and that his intent was respect for the customs of the country he was visiting. Many of the translations of commentary on Japanese blogs seems to bear this out. Having seen the pictures of Eisenhower (& sure ones will emerge of other presidents and leaders, AND not persuaded by still photographs of other presidents not bowing at the instant pics were taken -- Think Rummy's "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" line), I don't believe Obama is the first president to bow to a foreign leader, and certainly not the first to break international protocol rules in some way (I'd be willing to bet almost every president has committed at least one faux pas while in office).

Obama tried to be respectful, and didn't dance the dance exactly right. Whether one believes he should be applauded (or at the very least, understood) for his efforts, or attacked for not succeeding, speaks to the kind of people each of us are, I guess...

(To me, I get that he made a mistake. But I liken it to accidentally using the wrong fork, whereas the right seems to breathlessly be claiming it's an international incident, capital letters and exclamation points and all. Obama didn't surrender to Japan, here. And all the shouting & spittle about this only makes those doing the shouting & spitting look desperate and pitiful. Obama can't be doing all that badly if this is the kinda thing they're attacking him over. "When you got nothin' you grab at anything." Sad.)

Slow Joe said...

What a disgusting way of making an argument! And you didn't even quote the correct blogger.

Regardless, you go on and on about how the emperor is merely a monarch and not an absolute monarch... but so what? No one on the right has suggested otherwise.

Obama bowed to the tyrant of Saudi Arabia and the monarch of Japan. You respond to people who dislike that by being really ugly. Your political side has all the power... there's no justification for your rage at the people out of power who dissent. Obama's bow was very unusual... certainly the other leaders did not bow.

If Bush had done it, I suspect you would not feel the same way. But that's not a big deal.. this blog doesn't really make an intelligent argument to disagree with. It's just so disgusting and unprofessional in tone. Your commenters seem to also hve no interest in considering other points of view. Trust me, you are worse off for this.

big_wannabe said...

Compare and contrast:

The point is simply that The One™ rather than the genius renaissance-man savant of all known internationalist fetishes as his drones keep repeating is really just a pathetically ignorant doofus who can't even get a 5 minute protocol briefing before prostrating himself before whichever un-elected crowned head/autocrat.

I think you need to get your own scatalogical fascination in check, your projection is getting messy.

Infidel753 said...

Oh, come on. It's obvious Richard is in the right here. The bow was much deeper than would be normal for a foreign head of state such as Obama. The exact details of what the Emperor's role is in the Japanese system don't change that.

Yes, the right-wing blogs are making a mountain out of a molehill. Obama's error didn't have any sinister significance. He just made a mistake in protocol, as Repsac3 says. Presidents do that (heck, Bush I barfed on the Japanese Prime Minister!) and no doubt other foreign leaders do as well. It's not a big deal. But it was an error.

repsac3 said...

It seems like the wingnuts just wanna bitch and moan, though... Build those straw men; knock 'em down, BWannabe. Your foolish and clearly teabagger-anger influenced opinion is noted.

liberal dissent said...

Well, at least he didn't hold hands like GWB did with the Saudi king. That was just...weird.

Kansas City said...

It is nice to read this thread and see that the highly informed and respectful views of Richard have prevailed over Darrens's argumentative and offensive snark. Now, if Darren would just concede the error of his ways, that would be something -- I don't see that happening.

John S said...

Instapundit pointed me in this direction. This has been a real eye opener. Thanks for all your insightful input Richard - well done, and you managed to keep it classy.

All this leftwing/rightwing juvenile name calling does nothing but detract from any argument or point it is associated with. If an argument can't be framed without all the unnecessary derogatory slang, then there is likely not much of an argument to begin with.

cruelruin said...

This article points out the ridiculous overstated nature of this gesture in a way that is a bit imbalanced. And for the right-wing, I'd say it's insulting, which won't help it convince anyone to change their view. Despite this, I would say that the general direction of the article's view is correct.

Yes, there may have been misinterpretations of the gesture from the Japanese side of the court. However, since Japan is economically and militarily dependent on the US, it's kind of like seeing a bear kneel to a fish (and in terms of raw power, the difference is about that large - America has bases all over Japan). It might look a little silly, but it's not going to do any harm.

If this is a sign of weakness, it is a false one. Japanese people are too smart to think that America is weak just because the President bowed to their figurehead.

Ultimately, I think the effect will only increase the goodwill between both countries. This is win/win for everyone.

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