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The former flight attendant who became the first female president of Japan Airlines

The former flight attendant who became the first female president of Japan Airlines
  • Written by Mariko Aoi
  • Business reporter

Comment on the photo, Mitsuko Tottori began her career as a flight attendant

Not only was Ms. Tottori the first female president of an airline, but she also began her career as a cabin crew member.

Headlines ranged from “First Woman” and “First Former Flight Attendant” to “Unusual” and “Recommended!”

One website even described her as an “alien molecule” or “mutant,” in reference to her work at Japan Air System (JAS), a much smaller airline that JAL bought two decades ago.

“I didn't know there was a mutant alien,” Ms. Tottori laughed as she spoke to me from Tokyo.

In short, she was not among the business elite that the carrier usually appoints to its highest positions.

Of the last ten men to hold this position, seven were educated at the best university in the country. Ms. Tottori is a graduate of a lesser-known all-women's junior college.

With Ms. Tottori's appointment, JAL joins the less than 1% of Japan's largest companies led by women.

“I don't think of myself as the first woman or the first former flight attendant. I want to act like an individual, so I didn't expect to get this much attention.”

“But I realize that the public or our employees don’t necessarily see me that way,” she adds.

Her appointment also came just two weeks after JAL flight attendants were praised for successfully evacuating passengers from a plane that collided with a Coast Guard aircraft during landing.

Video explanation, Watch: The moment the plane turned into a fireball while landing on the runway

Japan Airlines Flight 516 burst into flames after colliding on the runway at Tokyo's Haneda Airport.

Five of the six crew members on board the Coast Guard plane died and the captain was injured. However, within minutes of the collision, all 379 people on board the Airbus A350-900 escaped safely.

Suddenly the rigorous training of carrier flight attendants is in the spotlight.

As a former flight attendant, Ms. Tottori learned the importance of aviation safety firsthand.

Four months into her job as a flight attendant in 1985, Japan Airlines was involved in the deadliest single plane accident in aviation history, which killed 520 people on Mount Osutaka.

“Every JAL employee is given the opportunity to climb Mount Osutaka and talk to those who remember the incident,” says Ms. Tottori.

“We also display aircraft wreckage at our Safety Enhancement Center, so instead of just reading about it in a book, we look with our eyes and feel with our skin to learn about the accident,” he added.

While her appointment to the top job came as a surprise, JAL has changed rapidly since its bankruptcy in 2010, in what was the country's largest-ever institutional failure outside the financial sector.

The airline was able to continue flying thanks to significant state-backed financial support and the company underwent a comprehensive restructuring process with a new board and management.

Her savior was Kazuo Inamori, a 77-year-old retired Buddhist monk. Without his transformative influence, it is unlikely that someone like Ms. Tottori would become JAL's leader.

I spoke to him in an interview in 2012. He did not mince his words, saying that Japan Airlines is an arrogant company that does not care about its customers.

Under Inamori's leadership, the company promoted people from front-line operations, such as pilots and engineers, rather than from bureaucratic positions.

“I felt very uncomfortable because the company didn't feel like a private company at all,” Inamori, who died in 2022, told me. “Many former government officials used to get golden parachutes in the company.”

JAL has come a long way since then, and the attention its first female president has received is no surprise.

The Japanese government has been trying for nearly a decade to increase the number of female managers in the country.

“It's not just about the mindset of company leaders, it's also important for women to have the confidence to become managers,” says Ms. Tottori.

“I hope my appointment will encourage other women to try things they were afraid to try before.”

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