Winning minds with a single bowIt often happens that a faded picture conveys richer content and a stronger message than a long novel. The photo taken by an American army sergeant at the American ambassador’s residence in Tokyo on Sept. 27, 1945 is such an example. It is picture that records the first encounter between General Douglas MacArthur, who marched into Japan as the de facto ruler after the end of World War II, and Emperor Hirohito, who lost his status as a living god and became human.
It is obvious that the emperor, who stands at attention in the picture, is feeling the strain. The photo was taken when public opinion in many countries that bore the brunt of Japan’s military might called for the Japanese ruler to be prosecuted as a war criminal, so it’s no wonder he was feeling a little tense when he first met MacArthur. The U.S. general had the power to decide the life or death of the Japanese people.
In the picture, MacArthur, who is a head taller than the emperor, overwhelms the Japanese ruler with his large build. The posture of MacArthur, who poses with slightly bent legs, his hands in the pockets of his plain clothes without a tie, nevertheless gives a dignified impression, while the emperor bears an expression of humiliation. He had probably rarely had his photo taken, and his discomfort is palpable.
There were three shots altogether, but in the first the Japanese leader had his eyes closed and in the second one, his mouth was open.
The Japanese press refused to carry the photo because carrying photos of their leader was thought to be disrespectful to him, but they had to obey the orders of the office of the occupation. The Japanese people who worshiped their leader unconditionally as a living god were shocked to see that their emperor cut such a dwarfish figure. The shock was followed by the painful awareness that Japan was a defeated nation and the fear that “on top of the god is MacArthur.” That was exactly what MacArthur intended to instill in the minds of the Japanese.
Now, 60 years later, another photo has decorated the world media. This time it is a photo of U.S. President Barack Obama bowing to the Japanese emperor, bending his upper body almost 90 degrees.
It seems that the Japanese, who were shocked at the photo of Hirohito being overwhelmed by MacArthur, are now moved and have a good impression. President Obama has succeeded in winning the minds of the Japanese with this photograph. In the United States, however, there is a controversy whether it was proper according to diplomatic protocol or an improper act for the president of the United States.
Diplomatic protocol is something that is complicated beyond all bounds and has no exact answer. It is an art, not a science.
There is some reason to say that excessive courtesy can be discourtesy. But I am of the opinion that the evaluation of the incident should be made on the grounds of whether one succeeded in winning the minds of the other side or not.
Obama’s bow, for that reason, was well executed.
The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Yeh Young-june