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Flying high: how Japan Airlines’ first woman leader went from cabin crew to president

Tottori, who rose through the ranks from cabin crew to chief customer officer, takes over as president of JAL in April, becoming one of the few women to lead a major global airline. Qantas has a woman boss, and KLM and Air France are led by women who report to a male group CEO.

“Her case shows that a woman who started her career from the lowest position could become the head of the firm. It serves as a great model for women’s career development in Japanese companies,” said Kumiko Nemoto, a professor of management at Tokyo’s Senshu University, and author of a book on gender inequality.

Inamori, the founder of electronics company Kyocera and mobile operator KDDI who died in 2022, was tapped by the government to revive JAL. Known in Japan as the “God of management”, the ordained Buddhist monk prized hands-on experience and said the carrier long neglected customers.

Her appointment was proof “Inamori’s philosophy of focusing on the frontline still exists at JAL”, one JAL executive said. Disdainful of hierarchy and the unquestioning obedience to rules, Inamori encouraged all staff to act as business leaders, the executive said.

Reuters spoke to seven JAL and industry sources, all of whom declined to be identified so they could speak freely.

Tottori becomes the fourth post-bankruptcy president and the first former flight attendant. Two of her predecessors came from engineering and maintenance, and one was a pilot.

JAL’s board wanted its next president to have experience in the trenches, three executives said. Current boss Yuji Akasaka, who becomes chairman in April, came from engineering and maintenance.

Outgoing chairman Yoshiharu Ueki, a former pilot, was particularly opposed to having a president with little practical experience,