Never looking for a reason to quit:
a female captain who dreamed of flying across the skies
Ari Fuji, Japan Airlines
Aug 24, 2017
This is a message from Ari Fuji, who became Japan’s first female pilot-in-command at a commercial airline after graduating from the College of Law and Politics, and still works for Japan Airlines today.
January 2000, at Shimojishima Airport in Miyakojima, Okinawa, where training with real aircraft entered its final stage.
Fuji first went aboard an airplane at the age of two. “I’ll never forget how the clouds outside the window looked like a blanket of bath bubbles.” Enchanted by airplanes at an early age, she had settled on her dream before graduating from high school:
she would become a pilot.
Broadly speaking, at the time there were only two major routes to becoming a pilot: study at the Civil Aviation College, or complete a four-year university course and apply for an airline’s in-house pilot training program. However, with her small frame, Fuji did not meet the height requirement for admission to the Civil Aviation College. She sought the latter route instead, through the Rikkyo University College of Law and Politics.
“I was drawn in by the university’s tradition of freedom. The reason why I chose the College of Law and Politics is that I thought I might have more options for choosing a job if I learned about society.”
In seminars, she specialized in problems concerning developing countries. Her studies gave particular attention to the relationships between developing and developed countries. Fuji tells us that in addition to the knowledge she acquired, her adviser, a female teacher, had a major influence on her. “Her motto was to live a life of feminine elegance even while working flat out to address the issues at hand. I really looked up to her for that.”
When searching for a job, Fuji called several airlines to ask about their in-house pilot training programs, only to be told with some hesitation that there were no previous female pilots. “I was at a loss at first, but I pressed on by reminding myself that it wasn’t the only option to be a pilot in Japan.” Fuji told her parents that she had decided to travel to the United States to get her license – and was surprised by how easily they agreed to the idea. “I was expecting that they’d tell me to go straight to work after graduating. I’m truly grateful to my parents.”
Fuji went to the United States to get her license – and eventually, opportunity knocked in Japan as well
It’s possible to earn a private license in one or two months, but Fuji spent 10 months acquiring a commercial license and a ground school instructor’s license in anticipation of employment opportunities in the United States. And then, she returned to Japan. She started work as a temp worker in order to save up money to look for work in the United States again.
“I put on a pink uniform and started working as an office worker at the office of a manufacturer.”
While she was doing this, she visited female professionals who were working as company pilots or in other such roles. Taking their advice that “it is possible to find work” as a female pilot in Japan, she decided to get a commercial license in Japan as well. She attended a training course at Yao Airport in Osaka Prefecture, and in 1997, after obtaining her license, she landed a job at a company that had airplanes at a small airport in Okayama. However, as she had almost no experience as a pilot, her main duties were to help with maintenance, operation control, and organizing hotels for pilots to stay in at their destinations. She tells us that as far as the airplanes were concerned, she only got to take rides when they were being moved.
But despite this, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came knocking. In 1997, Japan Airlines established a group subsidiary, JAL Express (which was later merged with Japan Airlines), and started a recruitment system that accepted applications from anyone with the necessary licenses. Fuji knew she “couldn’t let this opportunity slip,” and returned to Yao Airport on weekends and her days off in order to get the instrument flight certification needed to apply for JAL Express. In 1999, she passed the employment examination with flying colors and entered the company.
Arrival of Japan’s first female pilot-in-command: Friends from Rikkyo supported her through headwinds
Pre-flight meeting area
“But I had a sense of excitement that far exceeded the stress. I still feel an irreplaceable sense of achievement whenever I come home and take a breather after a flight.”
That said, in the past, there was also resistance against her. “When I was going to get my license in Yao, it was all men there, and sometimes they wouldn’t take me seriously, as if to say ’What’s a woman doing here?’ Those moments definitely didn’t feel very good, but that was just their attitude, and it wasn’t going to change my life. I had firmly decided to walk my own path.”
Fuji says that talking was her go-to method for dealing with stress. “My friends from my time at Rikkyo often lent me an ear. And I really took advantage of that. (laughs)” Though their work fields were different, her female friends were truly her allies, working hard in a male-dominated society. “They didn’t deny or criticize my ‘foolish’ ambition, and even when we didn’t talk about a lot, we shared our feelings by working. I’m truly grateful to have friends who share the same values.”
In 2010, Fuji took the post of pilot-in-command. This was the arrival of Japan’s first female captain of a passenger plane. And she didn’t stop there: she met her next goal of receiving certification as an instructor pilot, guiding the next generation of pilots.
“It’s difficult to teach them in a way that they can understand theoretically. Actually, I’m learning while teaching too. It’s not a simple job, but as I watch the trainees grow into pilots, I feel a different kind of satisfaction compared to what I experience from my flights.” Fuji continues.
“If something’s not enjoyable, I won’t keep doing it. Obviously, there’s hardship wherever you might be, but I work hard to turn that into something enjoyable. I think that’s important.”
Dressed in her pilot’s uniform, Fuji looks stern and dignified. But her smile and way of telling her story is much more gentle and friendly. The lesson of her adviser from Rikkyo, to “work elegantly,” still lives on, even after Fuji has become a pilot-in-command, then an instructor, pioneering the way for women working in the airline industry.
Fuji finishes with this message for current students:
“You’re in a truly free environment, so now’s the time to make attempts at things you’re interested in and find your own path. Even if people tell you that there’s no way it’ll work, you shouldn’t look for a reason to quit. The higher the wall is, the more rewarding the climb is. That’s how it was for me.”
737 pilot-in-command/Flight instructor, 737 Training Office, Flight Operation Training Department
1992: Graduates from Department of Law, College of Law and Politics. 1992: Enters pilot school at Riverside Municipal Airport in California, USA, where she receives licenses to pilot private and commercial aircraft, instrument flight certification, and a ground school instructor’s license. 1993: Returns to Japan. Obtains a Japanese license at a pilot school in Japan while working. 1997: Starts work at an airline based at a regional airport. 1999: Starts work at the former JAL Express (now Japan Airlines). 2000: Becomes a co-pilot; promoted to pilot-in-command in 2010, becoming the first woman in Japan to hold this post.
Note: Article contents are accurate as of the time of interview, and may not be up to date with the latest information.
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