There is so much information pouring out of Japan over the abdication, it made me curious about their customs. Looking at some of their cultural etiquette – specifically bowing – I found some interesting tidbits, especially as it relates to American leaders. What’s correct? What’s a gaffe? After some research, here’s what I discovered:
1. Handshakes in Japan are ok, but with an exception
Bowing is a typical social interaction, but as it turns out, nowadays a gentle handshake (without direct eye contact) is suitable. You cannot, however, shake hands and bow at the same time.
2. Heads of State and Government are more formal
For world leaders, it’s different etiquette from the typical informal settings. Heads of state are all considered to be equal in status, so bowing/curtsying to one another is not required, even if that country has a tradition of bowing in general.
Note the interactions between sovereigns to see what I mean. The King and Queen of the Netherlands greeted Emperor Akihito with handshakes. They did not bow or curtsy since they are equals. They did not bow to Queen Elizabeth II, either. The towering Dutch royals did have to bend due to the petite sizes of their Japanese and British counterparts, but no crack of the knee was necessary.
The same goes for our own American president. When Trump met with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in 2017, he and the First Lady shook hands with the Emperor and Empress, but did not bow.
Some presidents have fumbled this rule a bit, like former President Obama. Obama bowed very deeply to Emperor Akihito during a 2009 visit while shaking his hand. This was seen as bad form (bow + handshake) and overly-obsequious, similar to his bow to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. It gave the impression of Obama being a lesser status, especially since the monarchs did not return his bow either time.
An Obama aide explained the situation with the Saudi king: “It wasn’t a bow. He grasped his hand with two hands, and he’s taller than King Abdullah”. It was just a few months later when Obama bowed deeply to Akihito.
The president must’ve learned when, two years later, he met Queen Elizabeth II. The 6’1” president did not demonstrate the same deep bow but shook her hand instead.
According to the U.S. State Department’s “Protocol for the Modern Diplomat”, there is a difference between formal and informal greetings. Both are important to know, but world leaders should follow formal, international etiquette. Diplomats posted abroad or dealing with foreign dignitaries need to know both forms:
Although you should follow the guidelines about greeting, addressing and introducing someone in the formal international scene, you will need to learn about the local informal customs as well.Foreign Service Institute – U.S. Department of State
4. Watch where you walk
Leaders also need to demonstrate their equal status even when walking. They must walk alongside their host, not behind or ahead. This was President Trump’s big gaffe when he paid a visit to Queen Elizabeth II in July 2018. While inspecting the Guard of Honor at Windsor Castle, Trump walked in front of the Queen. She had to step around him to get back on track. She did not looked pleased!