November 15, 2009

"What do you mean, Insha'Allah?! Will you have a car on Monday or not?"
- from a Wikipedia talk page

Even in as simple a matter as acknowledging true degree of control over the future, comparative culture can be a tricky thing.

The bow means a different thing in Japanese culture than it does in the United States. In most European-derived cultures, the bow represents obeissance. In Old Testament tales, the righteous may serve under others, but they often refuse to bow. (Despots punish the omission, while enlightened rulers acknowledge the distinction and do not press it, choosing instead to accept the service gracefully.) In the United States, rejection of 18th C-style European monarchy and its associated trappings has become a continual personal affirmation of the ideals of the United States.

In Japan, the bow becomes nearly the equivalent of a handshake. As in the way the handshake is offered, the bow conveys a whole range of communication in a tight package. The first message is always one of respect. Other messages, tightly context-dependent, can include deference, humility, apology, or even the opening move of war. Relative status can be measured by the depth of the bow relative to the other person's height: a significant handicap for usually taller westerners. Even its absence carries meaning. For common mortals such as you and I, to omit a bow is to affirm our own arrogance and superiority to the point that the other need not be acknowledged with any respect whatsoever ... although an increasing number of Japanese have started to recognise that the typical bow in a westerner is so alien that it looks awkward and painful.

(For descendants of the gods, it is a little different. Even where personal divinity has been renounced at the point of a sword, it is almost always inappropriate for the descendant of divinity to bow to anyone not of similar lineage.)

During his recent meeting with the Japanese emperor, United States president Barack Obama chose to do both the handshake and the bow. He did not execute the bow quite correctly from the hips, without the additional curve to the back. (Few westerners can.) Then again, he is an exceptionally tall person. Bows are measured relative to the other person's height, so Obama's bow may have been lower simply to bring him close to eye level: which he would have achieved without the extra back curve.

Most non-Japanese world leaders follow the western protocol. When in Japan, they choose not to bow. Japan is quite well aware that until recently, most western interaction with Japan has been that of conversion, conquer, and occupation. Even today, nearly 10% of Okinawa's surface area is used by American military bases.

Whatever else, it has established a basis for future communications.

But times change, and so do international relations. For a hegemonic or imperialistic power, it is entirely appropriate to ignore any sign of respect it does not choose to confer and which does not originate from within its own cultural language. If the intent of a world power is not to rule over others but to work with them instead, what is appropriate may also change accordingly.

Comments:
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