The language of respect



Reiko Lewis

                    Photo: Dean Richardson

Reiko was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan. She began to learn English in 7th grade and never stopped learning. For several years she was a stewardess for Japan Airlines and flew to many places in the world—a time that helped her value other people and cultures. Later, she worked for IBM. For this work she needed to be fluent in English. While at the IBM company, she met and married an American and moved to America. Today, Reiko uses her language skills working for Delta Airlines, meeting Japanese dignitaries when they arrive in    the U.S.  In addition, she works for a language company in her area, teaching Japanese mainly to airline attendants flying to Japan.  It is, however, Reiko’s clear understanding of the power of language as a tool of respect that, we feel, makes her so amazing.



                      Photo: Susan Stark

My parents’ home

parents house

                                  Photo: Reiko

The old and the new

Old & New

                                Photo: Reiko

A Japanese wedding


                                Photo: Reiko

“I think it is true that in every culture a person can improve his social status by improving his language. It is the basis of all progress.”  — Reiko

I worked for Japan Airlines for four and a half years. I wanted to be a stewardess not only because I wanted to see the world, but also because women’s jobs were very limited at that time. In those days, getting a job usually meant making copies or coffee for your boss. Women were told to marry, stay home, and care for their children. I was not married at that point, but I was not happy being a stewardess. When I started to fly overseas, you could no longer fly on smaller planes. Airlines were flying only jumbo jets on overseas flights. The quality of service started to change because there were so many people to care for. In the Japanese culture, discipline, excellence, and doing your best is very important. But such quality is impossible when you are serving so many people. And so our work lost its special quality. It became very mechanical and impersonal. That was difficult for me when everything about our culture demands that we honor those we serve. 


The quality of someone’s language communicates a lot. I don’t mean how many words they know, or how much grammar they remember. I mean the quality of their speaking and how they express themselves. Every time I go back to Japan, I am sad to hear the words and expressions young people use now. Earlier in our culture, parents and grandparents taught children how to use expressions that show honor, humility, politeness, and respect. But society has become much more casual and I don’t think anyone can honestly say that this has made society better. I teach flight attendants only the most proper Japanese because they’re told that if they want to keep flying to Japan they must know how to speak with dignity and respect. But all young people must learn how to speak properly if they want to find a good job or do well in life. We need to understand that our words are us. They leave a strong impression of who we are.

When I begin work with students, I ask them what they want to learn and why. My students all want something different. But I tell them that most of all they need to learn how to speak with respect. Customer service is about respect. I focus my lessons on politeness. This has a lot to do with the Japanese culture.  Japanese people try hard to avoid confrontation. We are very uncomfortable when people argue and we try to stop an argument quickly and gracefully. When you live on a small island you must live in harmony. There is no other way. 

In Japan, there is an unwritten code [set of rules] that you are expected to follow. Not knowing this code is the first wall people moving to Japan meet. If people don’t know this code of politeness, Japanese close a door, or put up a wall between themselves and foreigners. And so, the language you use with people is very important. The language of respect is one of the most important parts of our culture. I think it is true, however, that in every culture a person can improve his social status by improving his language. It is the basis of all progress.

We have word in Japanese, “haji”.  It’s a very important word to us. It means “culture of shame”. It means embarrassment or disgrace, or to be humiliated in front of others. You could say that it is very heart of our culture. Japanese dread shame. The Samurai would kill themselves if they embarrassed or shamed their families rather than live with the shame. For them, being put to shame in public was worse than death.


When you are learning a new language, you are also learning a new culture. If you really want to learn a language, you must understand the culture that formed that language. Only then can you speak it well. 



 ©preInterestEng. July 2013  §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff or used with permission.  §  To contact us: