The image of President Obama bowing deeply while greeting Japan's Emperor Akihito has generated many spilt electrons of apoplectic outrage and instinctive, unthinking apologia. But in fact, both the left and the right have it wrong. And it's not the first time that this sort of imbroglio has happened, either.
The right has it wrong that Presidents do not bow before royalty. (Query if this is a bow, although whether we call it a "bow" or not, the drop of the head carries a symbolic implication of subordination.) The correct answer seems to be that some do and some do not.* The right kind of bow for a President to give the Emperor -- or any royalty or other holdovers from the ancien régime against which America revolted at the beginning of her independence -- is a slight, subtle rocking forward from the waist, with a small nod of the head. Nothing more than the sort of acknowledgment of recognition that one person might give to another across a crowded room, when it is inconvenient to cross the room and shake hands.
Obama, however, gave what seems to be known in Japan as the saikeirei bow, which is listed in some protocol guides as conveying "maximum respect" -- good in theory for protocol and diplomacy, but which in actual Japanese custom is used by a subordinate to greet a superior while delivering an apology for some kind of failure. The proffer of a handshake during the bow is a further compounding of the subordination of the bower to the person to whom the bow is offered. (Thanks to Doug Mataconis for the translation of the Japanese protocol manual.)
The fact of the matter is that there are elaborate and subtle protocols in Japanese culture about who bows to whom, when, for how long, and how deeply. Gaijin like us can only hope to really understand the result of years of strong cultural pressures that impress upon upper-class Japanese society the norms and modes of how to behave in such situation. As an intellectual exercise, then, Obama can be forgiven, in my mind, for getting it wrong. But this is the sort of thing that people who study management of large organizations look at and are driven absolutely crazy.
See, somewhere in the Protocol Office of the State Department is someone who actually has the knowledge necessary to instruct the President about the optimal way to greet the Emperor. Whether that's a strong-postured handshake between equals (something which has good emotional resonance for those of us with strong small-"r" republican sentiments) or a subtle Nixonian bow (the President is, after all, on the Emperor's turf)* is not all that important. What's important is that there is someone with the right answer.
First, this person needs to have both the exposure to information and the initiative to have figured out that the President was going to travel to Japan and meet with the Emperor soon, thereby acting within this person's particular sphere of expertise. How do you teach someone to pay attention to the news and realize that they have something of value to contribute?
Second, how do you teach them that not only would their contribution be useful, but that it is needed in the first place? It's entirely possible that the protocol officer figured, "Hey, the President knows what he's doing, I don't need to get involved," or worse, "If I stick my head up here, I might get it cut off." So you need to somehow teach someone the initiative to say, "Hey, maybe we ought to shoot a memo over and let the President's people give the big guy some tips on how to avoid a flap."
Third, assuming this person actually connects the dots and acts on the picture thus drawn, what happens to that memo, that e-mail, or whatever other communication results? This protocol officer does not have direct access to the President, and for good reason. If every protocol officer, every intelligence analyst, every budget officer, every Federal employee with expertise in any of the myriad fields of activity in which the President exercises general oversight, could communicate directly with the President, then the President would be too busy gathering information from all these people to act on it. He must of necessity rely on subordinates to gather, process, filter, and prioritize information for him. He must do so without directly knowing what information is being thus filtered.
In practice, there are a lot of filters between the protocol officer and the President. The protocol officer's superior, the Secretary of State, the White House's protocol office, the President's secretary and Chief of Staff -- all these people exercise filtering functions and decide for the President what is and is not important enough to merit the President's attention. If any of these people filter out important information, it gets lost. So how do you separate the good stuff from the noise?
Fourth, assuming this information actually gets to the President, he needs to remember it and act on it. The President has a lot on his mind and protocol can actually be quite a subtle thing -- and remember, we're dealing with something that non-Japanese find inherently confusing and complex here. The President is doing more than just remembering how to bow when he's meeting the Emperor of Japan; there are a whole lot of diplomatic things going on at once. And he's doing more on his trip than having tea -- there is actual roll-up-the-sleeves type of governmental work to be done with Japan's government, as well as the public ceremonies. So the President himself might have simply not filed that bit of information away in the right way and blanked out when the time came to use it, and relied instead on his best guess.
Anyone can forget stuff like that when they get put on the spot. I can recall a fellow Italian tourist telling me that he was embarrassed after meeting his friend's wife, because he had tried to use a form of Italian that was polite and formal, and his friend told him halfway through the dinner, "You don't have to treat her like she's the Pope." In fact, there is a form of Italian that is very polite which is reserved for speaking with the Pope (basically, you use the third-person plural instead of the third-person singular conjugation of verbs).
Which is all to say, yeah, the President made a diplomatic mistake. It's easy to see how that happened, though; this sort of information management, on-the-spot thinking, and cultural dissonance makes this sort of thing inevitable. So now that the President's mistake has been pointed out and micro-analyzed down to its atomic particles, the real question is whether he possesses the administrative expertise to improve the process in the future. This is the sort of thing about which I have always had reservations about Obama -- because his pre-Presidential background is entirely legislative and not executive or managerial in any way.
* Does location matter? If greeting the Emperor at the White House, is the protocol different than meeting the Emperor at the Imperial Palace?