The flight attendant who became CEO hopes more women will make it to the top

Tokyo/Hong Kong CNNMitsuko Tottori admits Japan has much more to do to get people like her into the chief executive seat.

Tottori was named as the first female president and chief executive of Japan Airlines (JAL) in January, crowning a career that began nearly 40 years ago when she joined the airline as a flight attendant.

Her rise is a rare feat in a nation where women still face major hurdles to promotion.

“Japan is still in a place of establishing the initial goal to increase (the number of) female managers,” she told CNN in an interview at the airline’s headquarters in Tokyo on Wednesday. “I hope that Japan will soon become a place where people are not surprised when a woman becomes a president.”

“We do want to seriously increase the number of (women) managers, and more than that, I think it’s important that women themselves want to be active, so I really hope to see more and more of (them) in the future,” she added.

Tottori, 59, began her career at the national carrier in 1985. Thirty years later, in 2015, she became senior director of cabin attendants and was steadily promoted up the ranks.

Her background differs vastly from her predecessors. It is extremely rare for a former flight attendant to climb to the top job. Of the last 10 JAL presidents, seven graduated from the prestigious University of Tokyo. By contrast, Tottori attended the two-year Kwassui Women’s Junior College in Nagasaki, part of a network of institutions that has played a major role in women’s higher education.

Tottori’s predecessor had a background in aviation maintenance, while the president before that started out as a pilot.

Among the reasons JAL gave for promoting Tottori to a senior position was her “high level of insight and field experience in safe flight operations and service through her career,” and during the Covid-19 pandemic she made a “significant contribution to maintaining safe operations.”

Tottori assumed the top job on April 1, and her appointment comes as the airline deals with the fallout from the fiery collision of flight 516 at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on January 2, as well as the fallout from an ongoing safety crisis at Boeing (BA).

Major accident

As it touched down at Haneda, the Airbus A350 passenger plane collided with a coast guard aircraft on the runway, killing five people. All 379 people on JAL flight 516 were safely evacuated, in a feat that highlighted the impressive safety protocol followed by the crew, who were praised for their speedy and cool-headed reactions.

Tottori says she watched the accident unfold on TV. She praised the crew and passengers for the quick evacuation.

“Well, first of all, I think the cooperation of our customers was enormous. They really followed the instructions of the flight crew calmly, which I think was a big factor. Also, I think it was important that the results of the (safety) training were fully realized,” she said.

Tottori said she would make safety a priority. The year she joined the airline, JAL flight 123 from Tokyo to Osaka crashed, killing 520 out of the 524 onboard in what remains the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history.

Shukor Yusof, founder of Endau Analytics, which tracks the aviation industry, said safety is paramount in the aviation industry and Tottori’s experience would help improve those protocols further.

“Japan has an excellent ‘culture of safety’ compared to many countries, even developed ones. Unfortunately JAL has had a couple of nasty accidents previously (flight 123 in 1985 and the latest one in January 2024). I do think a woman, especially one with a track record as a cabin crew, can help improve the already high safety protocols at JAL,” he said.

Gender gap

Tottori’s appointment comes as Japan Inc struggles to address a glaring gender gap and improve diversity at top firms.

Japan is ranked 125 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2023 — dropping nine places from the year before and placing far below other Group of Seven developed nations.

Regionally in Asia, Japan ranks the worst for gender parity, coming last behind Myanmar and Fiji.

As of 2023, only 12.9% of senior and leadership posts were held by women, according to the Global Gender Gap report.

“There are female employees who are struggling with their career steps or going through life events. I hope I can give them the courage or push them to take their next step after seeing my appointment as a president,” Tottori said in January.

The government aims to put women in 30% of senior management roles at major listed companies by 2030 and says it will support efforts to build a pipeline for the promotion of women.

But change from within has been slow.

Dr Seijiro Takeshita, professor of management and information at the University of Shizuoka, said corporate Japan has not done enough to ensure there are women in the executive pipeline to be promoted to C-suite positions.

“Traditions, practices and cultures are a hard rock to crack. But it is getting there,” he said. “A woman becoming the CEO of Japan’s leading firm is an incredibly positive sign.”

Tottori’s appointment, he said, would be looked on “very positively” by the public and stakeholders, especially given that she followed a “non-elite” path and rose through the ranks of the company.

“Cabin crew becoming CEO is taken very positively — particularly by the employees of JAL, who would much prefer to see their ‘comrades’ becoming CEO rather than a CEO from other firms or bureaucrats or ex-politicians,” Takeshita said.

JAL has rebounded pretty well after the Covid-19 pandemic, capitalizing on high tourist interest in the country, according to Yusof.

“That said, its domestic competitor ANA (All Nippon Airways) is also doing equally well. Indeed, the yen’s continued weakness is a boon for tourists but on the other hand, fewer Japanese are going abroad,” he said.

— CNN’s Junko Ogura, Mayumi Maruyama and Juliana Liu contributed reporting.