Ugly Americans

Ugly Americans

There are two types of Americans in Japan (Blatant Stereotype Alert!) There are those who seek to use a few words of Japanese, respect cultural traditions, take off their shoes in the house, use chopsticks, and bow. They may do things inappropriately at times but they are greatly appreciated in Japan for trying. Then, there are those who speak only English, put ketchup on their sushi, call for a fork and spoon, and never ever bow. The proverbial "ugly Americans." Japanese people smile at them politely while thinking on the inside, "what a bunch of jerks!"

 As an American living in Japan (I throw this in to sound qualified to comment, which I am not), I partake of some of both stereotypes but I strive to be sensitive. Bowing is a major part of this. Japanese people are very big on greetings (each year, public elementary schools hold a contest to see who can greet loudest and most clearly, bow the deepest, etc.). I, myself, find myself bowing many times a day, to the newspaper delivery guy, the mail carrier, the counterperson at McDonald`s, the tofu guy, the public bath proprietor, etc. I`m not a serial groveler. That is just common sense in Japan.

 Still, when President Obama bowed, admittedly somewhat choppily, to the Emperor and Empress, many conservative commentators got hot under the collar. Dick Cheney was often held up as the example of "appropriate greeting", for his upright handshake with the Emperor. He decried Obama`s bow as "showing weakness" (as quoted in the New York Post and elsewhere). There was, he said, "no reason" for the US President to bow to anyone. Andrew Malcolm in the LA Times called the bow, "groveling" and "undignified" and showed that the President had no sense of history. The SOP`s own Robert Paul Reyes roundly criticized the "subservient" action in his report, "Video: Obama`s Bow to Japan`s Emperor: How Low Can You Go?"

 My distinguished fellow columnists, in Japan, bowing has absolutely nothing to do with "groveling", "subservience" and/or "weakness". Sumo wrestlers bow to each other after every bout; I`d like to see Cheney call one of them weak. Bowing is a sign of respect, warmth, and even friendship and, in fact, has nothing to do with groveling. That is just the Western misunderstanding of an Eastern greeting.When Cheney did his famous "upright shake", the Emperor smiled and returned the greeting warmly (at least one of them has class!) but he was probably thinking "what an arrogant jerk!" People all over Japan surely did. Do we want our President to be learning manners and cultural sensitivity from the former VP?

 Holding hands with a Middle Eastern potentate (as President Bush famously did), bear hugging a Russian leader (a la Ronald Reagan), kissing a French leader on the cheeks, and bowing to a Japanese leader, these are all cultural greetings. Are they required? Maybe not, but what is the problem with being culturally sensitive? Imagine if the Prime Minister of Japan came to the States and refused to shake hands with the President (after all, hand shaking is not his culture-it is too casual). Would the conservative critics smile and say there is "no reason" for a Japanese Prime Minister to shake hands with anyone? That would be "too undignified"? There is no need for him to "grovel" and act "subservient" to the US President? I kind of doubt it.
Cheney and his cabal are of the view that when in America, do as the Americans do and when in Japan, do as the Americans do. This is the arrogance that has gotten America such a bad name all over the world.
 Japan and America are facing some serious issues in their relationship. Bowing to the Emperor is a small symbol of the President and the US` respect of and friendship with Japan. Just a token, but small things have a big impact in Japan. It is a cheap and easy way to deepen the relationship. And to the Emperor, I`m sorry that there are some critics in America who can`t even let a greeting alone (I`m bowing deeply in humble apology!)


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