Former flight attendant becomes Japan Airlines’ first female boss

Mitsuko Tottori started her career as a flight attendant. [Getty Images]

When Mitsuko Tottori was announced as the new president of Japan Airlines (JAL) in January, it sent shockwaves through Japan’s corporate sector.

Not only is Tottori the first female boss at an airline, she also began her career as a flight attendant.

Headlines range from “First Woman” and “First Former Flight Attendant” to “Unusual” and “Impossible!”

One website has labeled her an “alien element” or ” He even went so far as to call it a “mutant.”

“I didn’t know about alien mutants,” Tottori laughs, speaking to me from Tokyo.

In short, she did not come from the elite group of businessmen that airlines customarily appoint to top jobs.

Of the last 10 men to hold the position, seven were educated at the nation’s top universities. Tottori is a graduate of a not-so-famous all-female junior college.

With Tottori’s appointment, JAL joins the ranks of less than 1% of Japan’s top companies run by women.

“I don’t think I’m the first woman 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 know the public and my employees don’t necessarily see me that way,” she added.

Her appointment also comes just two weeks after a JAL flight attendant was praised for successfully evacuating passengers from a plane that collided with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft during landing.

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

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

The rigorous training of airline flight attendants suddenly came into the spotlight.

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

Four months after she became a flight attendant in 1985, Japan Airlines was involved in the worst single-aircraft accident in aviation history at Mt. Osutaka, killing 520 people.

“All JAL employees are given the opportunity to climb Mt. Osutaka and talk to people who remember the accident,” Tottori says.

“At the Safety Promotion Center, aircraft wreckage is also on display, so you can not only read about it in books, but also see it with your own eyes and feel it.”

Her appointment to the top job was a surprise, but JAL has changed rapidly since its 2010 bankruptcy, the biggest corporate failure in the country’s history outside the financial sector.

The airline managed to continue operating thanks to significant financial support from the government, and the business underwent a radical restructuring with a new board and management team.

The savior was Kazuo Inamori, a monk who had retired at the age of 77 and became a monk. Without his transformative influence, it is unlikely that someone like Tottori would have become JAL’s leader.

i talked to him In a 2012 interview. Without mincing words, he called JAL an arrogant company that doesn’t care about its customers.

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

Inamori, who passed away in 2022, said, “I felt very uncomfortable because the company didn’t feel like a private company at all.” “Many former government employees brought golden parachutes into the company.”

JAL has come a long way since then, and it’s no surprise that its first female president is making headlines.

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

The government currently aims to have one-third of leadership positions at major companies held by women by 2030. Goals will not be achieved by 2020.

“It’s not only important to have the mindset of a corporate leader, but also for women to have the confidence to take on management positions,” says Tottori.

“I hope my appointment inspires other women to try things they have been afraid to try.”

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