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Japan Airlines Breaks Gender Barriers with New Female President

Mitsuko Tottori steps up to the helm just weeks after the Tokyo runway collision

January 17, 2024

Photo: Japan Airlines, Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Courtesy of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

A female flight attendant who rose through the ranks to C-suite roles will head up Japan’s flag carrier, Japan Airlines (JAL), a milestone in a country with deep gender inequality in the workforce.

Mitsuko Tottori, a senior management executive at the airline, will become its president in June, replacing Yuji Akasaka.

Photo: TOTTORI Mitsuko. Courtesy of JAL

Tottori joined the airline as a cabin attendant in 1985 and, after twenty years of flying, moved into management in 2005. Since then, she’s held various roles at the airline, including in the Cabin Safety and Cabin Attendant departments. Most recently, she’s been Senior Vice President of Customer Experience and Chief Customer Officer since June 2023.

Her appointment bucks trends in Japan, where gender inequality is deeply entrenched in workplaces and boardrooms. Japanese women earn just 78% of what men do: the 22% pay gap is the widest in the G7 and nearly double the average in the OECD.

Women also represent just 11.4% of executives at major listed companies. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to boost that to 30% by the end of the decade. Under rules introduced in 2022, Japanese companies are also now required to publicize their wage gap annually.

At a press conference, Tottori spoke of the difficulty Japanese women face in the workplace. “There are female employees out there who are struggling with their career steps or going through big life events,” she said.

“I hope my appointment as a president can encourage them, or give them the courage to take the next step.”

Tottori joined JAL just months before it suffered one of the worst disasters in aviation history, the crash of JAL 123, which claimed more than 500 lives. As she steps up to the helm of the airline, it’s once again under scrutiny following an accident.

Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300ER take off from Tokyo Haneda International Airport / Photo: Kittikun Yoksap/Shutterstock

Earlier this month, a JAL Airbus A350 collided with a Coast Guard plane on a runway at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND). Five of six crew members aboard the smaller plane died, while all 379 people JAL passengers and crew escaped as the jet was engulfed in flames.

The successful emergency evacuation of the aircraft has been attributed to JAL’s safety culture, which it overhauled in the wake of the 1985 disaster. JAL cabin crew are specifically trained for emergencies, including the delivery of clear and concise directions to passengers.

JAL said that Tottori, who served in executive roles at the company’s Cabin Safety Department, has a “high level of insight and field experience” in safety operations.

“I have been focusing on safe flight operations as a cabin attendant and will work to keep this in mind from now as well,” she told reporters. “I am proud of the crew.”

Akasaka said JAL would take steps to avoid a repeat of the collision after the cause was identified by investigators. Initial reports suggest the Coast Guard plane didn’t receive clearance from air traffic controllers to taxi onto the runway where the JAL plane was due to land.

Departing president Akasaka will continue as chairperson. Both appointments will need the approval of the airline’s shareholders, with the general meeting to occur in June.

Meanwhile, the U.S. will also see the first female head of a major airline this year, as Joanna Geraghty becomes CEO of JetBlue next month.