Breaking with tradition, Trump did not bow to Japan's emperor — he nodded his head instead

  • Donald Trump did not bow when he met Japan's emperor on Monday, opting to lower his head slightly instead.
  • Bowing to international leaders has been a contentious issue for US presidents in the past.
  • In Japan, bowing is an important sign of respect and following local customs helps strengthen diplomatic relations.
  • The US president is normally advised on important customs by the chief of protocol, but the role is yet to be filled.

U.S. President Donald Trump did not bow when he met Japan's emperor on Monday. Instead, Trump stooped and slightly tilted his head as a gesture of respect to the 83-year-old leader.

Bowing is an important sign of respect in Japan. However, U.S. presidents have been criticized at home for bowing, which can be seen as appearing less powerful. In 1994, President Bill Clinton bent forward with his hands together to meet Japan's emperor at the White House.

At the time, one White House official said"Presidents don't bow, and Emperors don't toast."

The then-Chief of Protocol, who is responsible for international decorum, said "It was not a bow-bow, if you know what I mean."

Click through to see images from the moment between Trump and the emperor:

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Trump meets the Japanese emperor
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Trump meets the Japanese emperor
Japan's Emperor Akihito sees off U.S. President Donald Trump after their meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Japan's Emperor Akihito sees off U.S. President Donald Trump after their meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) is escorted by Japan's Emperor Akihito upon his arrival at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Japan's Emperor Akihito during their meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko see off U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania after their meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
U.S. President Donald Trump (3rd R) talks with Japan's Emperor Akihito (L) while his wife Melania (3rd R) talks with Empress Michiko (R) at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Japan's Emperor Akihito sees off U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania after their meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
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But both Republican and Democrat presidents have bowed deeply, almost to 90 degrees, to Japanese emperors in the past. George H.W. Bush did so in 1989 at the funeral of the previous emperor, and Barack Obama followed suit 20 years later.

While Obama was slammed by conservatives in the US for the move, his actual faux pas came from mixing two gestures — a bow and a handshake.

Traditionally in Japan, only a bow is given. However, as Japan has become the world's third-largest economy, international business customs have proliferated inside the country and handshakes have become more common. The issue comes when mixing the two. Obama also bowed when he visited Saudi Arabia. Trump criticized the move, but appeared to do the same on his first international trip earlier this year.

Respecting local customs and traditions is important for maintaining diplomatic equilibrium between countries.

Briefing the president and government staff on these matters falls to the US Chief of Protocol. However this role has not yet been filled in the Trump administration, which could cause problems in Asia where showing respect with specific gestures is incredibly important.

Trump's nominee for Chief of Protocol, Sean P. Lawler, is yet to be confirmed after a hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last week.

Lawler, who has worked in diplomacy for the Navy and National Security Council, told senators that protocol is his "bread and butter."

“One of the things with protocol is to do no harm. Going into this one of my goals right off the bat is to put [out] a good face and set the stage for diplomacy for the President," Lawler said. 

RELATED: Trump arrives in Japan

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Donald Trump arrives in Japan
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Donald Trump arrives in Japan
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One to depart for Japan from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, U.S. November 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on Air Force One at U.S. Air Force Yokota base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on Air Force One at U.S. Air Force Yokota base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on Air Force One at U.S. Air Force Yokota base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at U.S. Air Force Yokota base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses members of U.S. military services and Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) at U.S. Air Force Yokota Air Base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses members of U.S. military services and Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) at U.S. Air Force Yokota Air Base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Supporters hold signs as they wait for U.S. President Donald Trump outside Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, north of Tokyo, Japan November 5, 2017. Trump is due to play golf at the club with Japan?s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. REUTERS/Issei Kato
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Japan?s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, north of Tokyo, Japan November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold hats they signed, reading "Donald & Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater" before lunch and a round of golf at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Japan November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump (L) is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upon his arrival at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, near Tokyo, Japan, 05 November 2017. REUTERS/Frank Robichon/Pool
U.S. President Donald Trump departs after a round of golf with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Japan November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as Japanese professional golfer Hideki Matsuyama looks on, as they play golf at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, north of Tokyo, Japan, in this photo taken and released by Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office via Kyodo November 5, 2017. Mandatory credit Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office via Kyodo/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN.
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