A former flight attendant who became the first female boss of Japan Airlines

  • By Mariko Oi
  • Business Correspondent

image caption, Mitsuko Tottori started her career as a flight attendant

Ms. Tottori began her career not only as the carrier's first female boss, but also as a cabin crew member.

Headlines ranged from “First Woman” and “First Former Flight Attendant” to “Extraordinary” and “No Job!”

A website describing her work at Japan Air System (JAS), the much smaller airline that JAL bought two decades ago, described her as “an alien molecule” or “a mutant”.

“I didn't know about Alien Mutant,” laughs Tottori, speaking to me from Tokyo.

In short, she was not among the elite group of businessmen that Carrier routinely recruited for his top job.

Seven of the last 10 inductees were from the nation's top universities. Ms. Tottori graduated from a less prestigious girls-only junior college.

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

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

“But I realize that neither the public nor our staff will see me that way,” he adds.

His appointment comes two weeks after JAL's flight attendants were praised for successfully evacuating passengers from a plane that collided with a Coast Guard plane during landing.

video title, WATCH: The plane turns into a fireball the moment it lands on the runway

Japan Airlines Flight 516 burst into flames after impacting 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 crash, all 379 people on board the Airbus A350-900 escaped safely.

The rigorous training of the carrier's flight attendants suddenly drew attention.

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

Four months after she became a flight attendant in 1985, Japan Airlines suffered the worst single-plane crash in aviation history, killing 520 people on Mount Osudaga.

“Every JAL employee is given an opportunity to climb Mount Osudaga and talk to people who remember the accident,” says Ms. Tottori.

“We display aircraft debris in our safety promotion center, so instead of reading about it in a book, we see it with our own eyes and feel it with our own skin to learn about the crash.”

While his appointment to the top job came as a surprise, JAL has changed rapidly since its bankruptcy in 2010, the country's biggest corporate failure outside the financial sector.

The airline was able to continue flying thanks to major government-backed financial support and the business underwent a major restructuring with a new board and management.

Its savior was the then 77-year-old retired Buddhist monk Kazuo Inamori. Without her transformative influence someone like Ms. Tottori would not have been at the helm of JAL.

I spoke to him in an interview in 2012. He didn't mince his words, saying JAL was an arrogant company that didn't care about its customers.

Under Mr 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,” Mr Inamori, who died in 2022, told me. “Many ex-government officials carried golden parachutes in the company.”

JAL has come a long way since then, and the attention its first female president received is not surprising.

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

“It's not only about the mindset of corporate leaders, but it's also important for women to have the confidence to become a manager,” says Ms Tottori.

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

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