In times past, when you asked someone in Japan what their image of a “career woman” was, they might have imagined an “office lady” or a “department store clerk/manager.” Maybe even a mid-level manager in a large company. Fast forward to 2021 and we have female owner/managers, CEOs, journalists, writers, editors and yes, we still have the “office ladies” too. But, not many people imagine that the airplane they are taking from Tokyo to Okinawa is piloted by a woman. And that’s mainly because they are few and far between. By some estimates, only 5% of total pilots in the world are female. One Young World Japan Director, Daren Afshar, speaks with Ms. Aki Mitsui, one of JAL’s inspiring female pilots, about her story and how things are changing.
Let’s start with the obvious question. Did you always want to be a pilot?
Actually, no. When I was looking for a job, I heard from a friend who worked at JAL that they hired a woman for an in-house training pilot course and knew that was my chance to truly try something new.
I was expecting you to say something like, “I saw Tom Cruise in TOP GUN” or “I was inspired by the movie SULLY.”
(laughing) Sorry, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks. I like your movies, but it was my friend who inspired me to take a leap of faith and try something new.
Take me back to your training days. What difficulties did you face on your journey to become a pilot? How did you overcome them?
The most challenging time for me was during training in the US. When I arrived, I realized that one of my female colleagues had already returned to Japan. So, it was just me. All my classmates were male. They all shared rooms, but because I was alone, I had to do everything on my own. Getting used to living in the US and getting things sorted out on my own was lonelier and more difficult than the training itself.
Ultimately, it was the love and support from my friends that kept me going. Prior to training in the US, I had been working at Narita Airport for about six years. On my last day at Narita, before I left for the US, I interacted with during my time there all came to say “good luck.” Whenever I remembered that day where everyone came out to support me, I always thought that I can’t give up. I knew I had to do my best.
And you DID do your best and you graduated! Tell me about your first flight. What was it like?
My first flight was actually 3 flights: from Tokyo to Kita-Kyushu, back to Tokyo and then onward to Nagoya. The weather was sunny and perfect for a first flight. One of my colleagues even came from Nagoya to board my first flight to Kita-Kyushu. She said, “…if I’m going to Nagoya anyway, I will go with you all the way!” And, as a result, she boarded all 3 flights on my first day! It was quite memorable!
You said, “SHE.” I’m a strong believer in women supporting women. I get the impression that the women are quite supportive of each other there at JAL?
Yes, we are! There are several female pilots who have preceded me. They went through everything I experienced during training, but didn`t have the strong support I had. When they had problems, they had to try out different things on their own and be creative.
Now they share those experiences with us. When I talk to them, I feel they all have a very strong core, while still being very cheerful and open-minded. I think that is really amazing. There are also women who have given birth and are raising their children, while training to become a Captain. We also have female Captains who are instructors. So, there are many different paths that women can take at JAL. I’m hoping that I can continue with that tradition and create some kind of additional paths for my younger colleagues as well.
Even though you are flying now and have a strong support network of empowered women to back you up, do you still have challenges or things you’re still learning?
Definitely. My first 6 months was about creating a routine; to build stamina and allot plenty of preparation time. But now, each and every flight is a personal challenge. I strive to make each flight better than the last.
Any chance we’ll see you and your female colleagues piloting our flight to Munich this July for the One Young World global summit?
I typically fly 737s on domestic routes and don’t go abroad that often. But it would be exciting for sure!
Aki, you’re an inspiration to me and many other young women thinking about becoming a pilot someday. Thanks to you I’m sure we’ll raise the number of female pilots in Japan and around the world! Keep up the great work!
Thank you, Daren! I will!