Saturday, November 21, 2009

My latest for the Yomiuri: Obama and Perry bow

My latest column in the Daily Yomiuri in Japan--on Pres. Obama, Commodore Perry, and the new Asia:

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / Soft power evolution from Perry's day to Obama's

Less than a week before U.S. President Barack Obama touched down in Tokyo last Friday, I took the train to Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture, the tiny port city at the tip of the Izu Peninsula famous today for its beaches, seafood and hot springs. But 156 years ago, Shimoda earned fame for another reason: It was the landing site of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and his Black Ships, a squadron of four military vessels equipped with threatening cannons and aiming to open Japan to international trade.

At the time, Japan's Tokugawa shogunate had successfully shut the nation's shores to the world for nearly 300 years. Perry, with his technologically advanced hardware and a letter of peaceful intentions from U.S. President Millard Fillmore, succeeded in his mission. The first Japan-U.S. treaty was signed, and Japan opened to world trade, partly in response to Western technological prowess, and partly in reaction to the press of what we now call globalization.

Today, Shimoda is a quiet place, and I was warmly welcomed by smart hotel clerks who helped me visit the area's major historical monuments and museums. My hotel room overlooked the ocean. The food was excellent, and a hot spring was offered at no extra cost on the top floor, with a picture-perfect view of the Pacific.

Among the displays of early encounters between the Japanese and Americans, I focused on the graphics--numerous mangalike watercolor portraits of big-nosed, hairy-faced Americans with long legs and vast heads of wild hair wandering amid lean, spindly-legged Japanese. One sequence is particularly memorable: American soldiers laughing at a display of Japanese strength, featuring two sumo wrestlers grappling on a beach, and a subsequent portrait of a sumo wrestler flipping an American soldier over his shoulder--eliciting laughter from all on hand. [more HERE, and co-hosted by 3:AM magazine HERE]

US Commodore Perry bowing before the Tokugawa shogunate/Samurai, circa 1853.

US President Obama bowing before Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, circa 2009.


ArthurFrDent said...

Glad to see you put those pictures up here... that is the one thing I have against the DailyY... pics are generally not incl. on their website. I know there are other columnists like yourself that I read that probably incl. photographs. Nature In Short, for one. But I'm sure having those on their english site chews bandwidth, and what would they get from it? It's not like any of their advertizing is targeted at some curious guy in colorado.

Interesting stuff about Perry. I disagree on Obama's bow. I'm sure there is a specific sign of respect he is supposed to show to a monarch as a point of protocol. He certainly didn't bow to the Queen of England, showing more familiarity to her than normal. :shrug: hopefully it was excepted well in Japan, and not seen as a weak sign. The Saudis certainly interpreted his bow to them as weakness. It's a learning curve, for sure...

Cheers on another excellent article.

Tornadoes28 said...

I do not have a problem with Obama's bow to the emperor. It was too low of course and he should not have shook the emperors hand at the same time. A little awkward. He should not have bowed to the Saudi King in my opinion.

Roland Kelts said...

Glad you like the column and the graphics, and thanks for the kind words. Actually, the friendly folks at 3:AM magazine in the UK have just republished my column with apt images here:

Obama's bow was respectful--and respectfully received as such here in Japan, though I agree that a bow and simultaneous handshake make for awkward posturing. At least he made the effort. Whether you're American or not, 'when in Rome ...'

Roland Kelts said...

PS Bowing is a lot better than vomiting, a la George Sr., circa 1992: