My sympathy for the right-wing pundits this week, since their favorite punching bag of a president is touring in Asia, a land so far removed from their nitpicking frame of reference, they sound even more ridiculous than usual.U.S. President Barack Obama has been accused of bowing too deeply to Emperor Akihito by the likes of Michelle Malkin, Steve Doocy, William Kristol, Bill Bennett, and also in a blog post in L.A. Times titled, “How Low Will He Go?”
Without any conservative commentator who can properly assess President Obama’s Nobel-winning diplomacy across the Pacific, they are left to blabber criticisms so off the mark, for the only Asian flavor they get in life probably comes from a 30-cent bag of instant ramen noodles and Walmart tchotchkes made in China.
Perhaps you have heard of the complicated protocol in Japanese art of bowing, that there are three degrees of politeness expressed in any given social situation depending on who and when you are bowing. And it’s true.
The original concept of this tri-fold greeting goes back to the early days of Japanese calligraphy, where there are three styles of writing: shin (真), gyō (行), and sō (草). Shin, with the kanji representing “truth,” is also known as kaisho, and it’s the most formal, while sō is the most casual, and gyō somewhere in between.
See below: the letter for spring 春, written in three different styles.
The tradition of Japanese tea ceremony, which was popularized by Grandmaster Sen no Rikyū in the 16th century, adopted this tri-fold structure in aesthetics of Chanoyu. In addition to the three different styles of tokonoma (alcove) and jiku (scroll), there are three levels of bowing, used in different occasions. Guests should always use the shin bow, the deepest, toward the host, gyō bow among the guests to greet one another, and sō bow is used when the host bows back to the guests in acknowledgment of the guest’s bowing while being preoccupied with some other task, such as wiping the tea bowl. When erect, the same bows would have the upper body angle of 45˚, 30˚ and 15˚. But there is one element that is essential in all three: respect.
Different bows do not mean to show there are different degrees of respect. In fact, respect is more like pregnancy: there is no such thing as “a little” respect. (You know when Aretha Franklin tells you to “show” a little (sō) respect, her voice nonetheless commands your full respect.)
Bowing your head indicates that you’re not afraid to expose the nape of your neck to the other party, leaving yourself vulnerable to an attack with a sword. It is NEVER in itself an expression of submission or apology.
The video of Obama bowing to the Emperor seems that he was following this protocol. Unfortunately, he could have let go of the handshake while bowing, and his upper body could have been more straight, but it was enough to earn the my respect.
There is a proverb in a haiku format: Minoruhodo koubewotareru inahokana (実るほど 頭を垂れる 稲穂かな) The more abundant the rice grain, the lower it would hang its head. The respectable man is a humble man. (Photo by elmimmo)
And how can Michelle Markin accuse Obama of being a water boy on the global stage while she herself is just kowtowing (that’s entirely different way of bowing in China) to the white boy establishment?