Mitsuko Tottori, 59, a former flight attendant who advanced to the position of CEO and President of Japan Airlines (JAL) over a career spanning 40 years, has broken a number of glass ceilings in getting to her current position in the quite patriarchal Japanese society. In effect, she has created history in a still traditional Japan. In the process, she has also become one of the few women to lead a major global airline. She took over the position starting April 1.

Newly-appointed CEO and President of Japan Airlines Co. Mitsuko Tottori.(REUTERS)

And her amazing journey to the top from humble beginnings as a cabin crew member to the boardroom is noteworthy especially in Japan, where corporate opportunities for women to advance are limited. The C-suite for long has been an impregnable male bastion. Tottori’s appointment signified a shift in Japan Inc. Tottori’s extensive experience managing cabin crews and safety, coupled with her strong leadership qualities, led to her selection as president. Her promotion challenges traditional perceptions of women in leadership roles, demonstrating that she earned her position through skill and experience rather than being a mere token of diversity.

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Tottori’s ascent serves as a model for women in Japanese companies and suggests the need for broader reforms in training and promotion policies to break through existing glass ceilings. So, what does Tottori have to say about her rise to corporate power? In an interview with CNN, she said, “Japan is still in a place of establishing the initial goal to increase (the number of) female managers.”

Acknowledging why most of the world was surprised at her appointment she indicated she expected more such changes in the country and said, “I hope that Japan will soon become a place where people are not surprised when a woman becomes a president.”

The reasons that JAL provided which got her promoted to the top post was her “high level of insight and field experience in safe flight operations.” Not just that, during the pandemic Tottori made a “significant contribution to maintaining safe operations.”

And she has a message for other women and holds out hope. She told CNN, ““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.”

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