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MARKETANALYST.US / ECONOMY & WORK

How a Former Flight Attendant Emerged as the First Female CEO of Japan Airlines

Mitsuko ottori's career journey with Japan Airlines began in 1985 when she started as a flight attendant. Fast forward today, she's the CEO!
PUBLISHED MAY 5, 2024
Image Source:  Newly hired employees for Japan Airlines (JAL) attend an entrance ceremony| Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi | Getty Images
Image Source: Newly hired employees for Japan Airlines (JAL) attend an entrance ceremony| Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi | Getty Images

Success stories are built by entrepreneurs who start small and gradually rise up the ranks to finally emerge as leaders in their respective industries. Mitsuki Tottori created history when she took over as Japan Airlines' (JAL) first female president and CEO. But her career started almost forty years ago when she joined the same airline as a flight attendant.

Paving the Way for Change

The 59-year-old Tottori started working at JAL in 1985 and by 2015 she was appointed senior director of cabin attendants. It's not common for a former flight attendant to hold a senior leadership position and seven of the ten presidents of JAL before her came from prestigious University of Tokyo. In contrast, Tottori studied at the two-year Kwassui Women’s Junior College in Nagasaki, which is a member of a network of universities dedicated to the education of women.

Because of Tottori's extensive knowledge and real-world experience in guaranteeing safe flights and offering top-notch service throughout her career, JAL elevated her to a senior position. She was instrumental in maintaining operational safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Commitment to Safety Amid Challenges

Tottori pledged to prioritize safety, drawing from her experience. In the year that she joined the airline, JAL flight 123 tragically crashed, resulting in the loss of 520 lives out of 524 onboard. Shukor Yusof, founder of Endau Analytics, noted Japan's strong safety culture, despite JAL's past accidents. Yusof believed Tottori, with her background as a cabin crew member, could further enhance safety protocols at JAL.

Image Source: Newly hired employees for Japan Airlines (JAL) release paper airplanes during an entrance ceremony | Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Image Source: Newly hired employees for Japan Airlines (JAL) release paper airplanes during an entrance ceremony | Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Bridging the Gender Divide

With Tottori's appointment, Japan Inc. is trying to increase diversity in high-level posts and close the gender gap. In the World Economic Forum's 2023 Global Gender Gap Index, Japan is ranked 125th out of 146 countries, down nine spots from the previous year and considerably behind other developed countries in the Group of Seven. Japan is the least gender-egalitarian country in Asia, lagging behind Fiji and Myanmar. Based on the Global Gender Gap study, women held only 12.9% of senior leadership jobs as of 2023.

"I hope my appointment as president can inspire female employees who may be facing challenges in their careers or personal lives to take their next step forward," Tottori expressed in January.

By 2030, the government wants to see 30% of women in senior management roles at large publicly traded enterprises. It also promises to encourage the creation of opportunities for women to grow in these roles.

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, JAL has managed a strong recovery, benefiting from increased tourism interest in Japan, as noted by Yusof. However, he highlighted that its domestic competitor, ANA (All Nippon Airways), is also performing well.

Image Source:  Newly hired employees for Japan Airlines (JAL) attend an entrance ceremony| Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi | Getty Images
Image Source: Newly hired employees for Japan Airlines (JAL) attend an entrance ceremony| Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi | Getty Images

As Yusof points out, JAL has recovered well despite the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 outbreak, thanks in part to a rise in interest in Japan among travellers. He did, however, draw attention to the fact that All Nippon Airways, its domestic rival, is also doing well. In addition, he pointed out that fewer Japanese are going overseas, even if the weakening yen favours tourism.

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