Japanese bowing etiquette
President Obama’s recent trip to Japan caused a stir when he greeted the Emperor with a 90-degree bow. The President’s supporters are claiming that it was protocol, but it most certainly was not. Bowing between equals involves a 45-degree bow. Never does a party on equal terms with the other perform a 90-degree bow (unless the other is reciprocating, of course). These deep bows are performed by people in inferior positions, for example you will see car salesmen bowing deeply to customers leaving their parking lot. You also see clerks giving deep bows to customers in department stores and students giving deep bows to their teachers. Yes, it is a sign of respect, but it is a sign of respect given by a person in an inferior position to someone else who is in a superior position. Moreover, you do not perform such a bow while shaking someone’s hand. As far as I’m aware, there is nothing offensive about doing so, it’s just not done.
Personally, I do not think any American, much less the President, should be greeting foreign dignitaries with deep bows (all men are created equally and all that jazz, you know?). I think it just shows that Obama is inexperienced and lacks a proper understanding of how he should handle himself as President (much as his failing to cover his heart during the National Anthem did during the primaries).
On the other hand, the Emperor has no real power and is only a figurehead, so the goof did not really symbolize anything like his bow to the Saudi King did. From what I’ve seen on Japanese websites, the Japanese people are simply treating it as a goof. No one here thinks the United States has lost face because of the bow. I’m just glad he didn’t get down on the ground and do a dogeza (to sit with your feet folded under you and bow so that your face pretty much touches the ground). All in all, I think goofs like this are the least of our concerns when it comes to what the Obama administration might do to the future of the US.