As President Trump embarks on his Asian tour, we expected him to commit numerous protocol gaffes, even before he left Washington. He did not disappoint. In Japan, upon meeting Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in Tokyo, he greeted the emperor with his trademark vigorous handshake. After the meeting was concluded, it was the two-handed handshake, with Trump using his right hand for the handshake, and using his left hand to embrace the emperor’s arm.
Were the President to have a Chief of Protocol – a role he has not filled – said Chief would have advised him ahead of time on Asian greeting customs. Handshakes are of course a Western concept. In most Asian countries, there is either a bow, a wai, a namaste, or something similar, none of which involve actual touching. Among statesmen, it is traditional to follow the custom of the country in which you are in. When a foreign head of state visits the White House, a handshake is completely appropriate and expected, but when the American head of state visits a foreign country, the custom of that country should take precedence.
Of course, the Emperor is a worldly man, and he knows American customs and accepted the handshake graciously. Nonetheless, the bow is a sign of respect – it is not, as some conservative commentators have posited, a sign of subservience. It is certainly not beneath an American president to follow the custom of the country he is visiting, and President Trump should have observed the Japanese custom in this case.
President Trump’s insistence on Western greetings in every instance is unnecessarily aggressive, a subtle sign of disrespect, and certainly un-statesmanlike. Respecting local customs and traditions is something every diplomat understands, and it’s certainly at least one small step in maintaining diplomatic relations between countries.
Respecting those local greeting customs isn’t just a matter of a handshake, and contrary to the words of commentators who do not understand Asian culture, offering the customary bow does not make you any less of an American. Following the local custom is a gesture of equality; insisting on your own custom is a gesture of arrogance.
Is it bad PR? Absolutely. But this is just the first of many gaffes that are sure to come on this trip to five Asian countries.