Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s expression said it all. That followed the excruciating ordeal of being manhandled by one of Donald Trump’s infamous handshakes during his weekend visit to Washington to mend fences (as opposed to building walls). What Trump failed to realize is that public physical contact is not felt as a positive experience in ordinary Japanese culture, Sumo wrestling notwithstanding. Even married couples refrain from holding hands when walking side-by-side on city streets. Shaking hands is at best tolerated.
When I visited Japan some years ago, I was told the story of how one Japanese explained this exquisite sensitivity. “Do you not flinch when someone touches your eyelid?” he asked. When assured that was normal in the west, he went on, “Japanese all eyelid.”
At mass in the Jesuit church at Sophia University in Tokyo for the first time, I wondered how the Japanese Catholics would deal with the Kiss of Peace, which in the somewhat puritanical west has been reduced to a diffident handshake. When time came for the ritual greeting, the congregation turned to one another, pressed their hands together as if praying, lowered their gaze, and bowed deeply. I did likewise.
Profound human respect and great courtesy is a beautiful and essential aspect of Japanese culture. This was not lost on President Obama in his visit to Japan, when he bowed deeply before his honorable hosts, but of course received stern criticism for his culturally sensitive gesture by many of his countrymen back in the US.
It is also not common for Japanese men and women to indicate emotion by facial expression. The depth of distress experienced by the Prime Minister could be read in his look of embarrassment and, let it be said, relief when released from the American president’s grip. May his country do as well.