President Trump faces a historically thorny diplomatic test Monday when he meets Japanese Emperor Akihito for the first time, an encounter steeped in tradition and state protocol that has tripped up three of the last four American presidents.
Trump’s visit to the Imperial Palace will be brief but highly symbolic and closely watched. During the visit of less than 30 minutes, the U.S. president and first lady will aim simply to greet the 83-year-old emperor and his wife, Empress Michiko, as a show of solidarity with the Japanese people.
In Japanese culture, bowing is a sign of respect and appreciation. The deeper the bow from the waist, the more respect and gratitude are shown.
State Department protocols advise U.S. diplomats and presidents to be sensitive to local customs but do not advise bowing.
That hasn’t stopped several recent presidents from bending at the waist when greeting the emperor, sparking intense public debate.
In 2009, on his first official visit to Japan, President Obama bowed deeply from the waist before Emperor Akihito – a move that critics said displayed weakness and lowered the stature of his office even as the White House said it was all about respect.
Obama was later met with criticism when he appeared to bow again in greeting Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in 2012.
Now Trump is president and is known to improvise in staid diplomatic settings. How he behaves in the meeting with the Japanese emperor could leave a lasting impression.