Flying high from where the airlines left off


For all his carefully considered — if not weightily measured — words, Geoffrey Tudor’s inner child is never far away. It twinkles at the corners of his eyes, twitches the corners of his mouth, and often convulses his body in mischievous laughter.

On April 27 this year, after two and a half years as an adviser following his formal retirement from Japan Airlines in November 2004, Tudor finally left the company with (in his own words) “a pension and a bunch of flowers.” He had worked for the company for a total of 38 years.

Having hung up his suit and tie, the first Monday he did not have to get up to trim his mustache and go to work was a national holiday, followed by Golden Week. He and wife, Naoko, then took off to Europe for seven weeks.

“We based ourselves with my sister in Brighton — our laundry stop. Flew as tourists by Easyjet to Italy (Venice and Florence for the first time ever) then back to do our washing. Flew to France, to stay with friends in Provence; ditto. Finally to more friends in Southern Spain (Andalucia), and back to pack.”

If he had the chance to return to any of these cities, it would be Florence. “I was prepared for Venice, having read John Julius Norwich’s excellent book on the subject, so it really came alive. But I need to do my homework on Florence. Much of the time I had no idea what I was looking at.”

No sooner had he returned to Japan, than he was faced with the death of his good friend of 30 years, the journalist Richard Hanson.

“It was hard, he was only 56. We gave him a good sendoff though, here at the press club (the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan in Tokyo’s Yurakucho), placed his ashes on a chair at the bar, with a plate of fish and chips, had a few drinks.”

Now Tudor is settling into a new way of life, working part-time as associate director in crisis communications for the Texas-based company Kenyon International, a disaster-management company. This involves commuting from his country pad between the mountains of Oku Chichibu and Chichibu Station (“I see steam trains going past”) or staying at his wife’s house in Tokyo’s Nakano.

Kenyon, with major branches in the U.K. and Australia, specializes in worldwide disaster management for the airline industry. “My involvement is in crisis communications and represents just one facet of the company’s activities, drawing on a wealth of experience at JAL.”

He recalls flying with Pope John Paul 11 from Nagasaki to Rome in 1991 as a highlight of his career (“though the papal paparazzi were no fun at all!”)

He creases up when describing how he had to accompany a crated horse to Los Angeles. “It had been hauling a caravan and a family of five from Orkney around the world. They ran into difficulties so we helped with the freight. Sadly, the horse died, but later. Nothing to do with me or the airline.”

But nothing — nothing, he emphasizes — could ever be as bad as Aug. 12, 1985, when Japan Airlines Flight 123, on a domestic flight between Tokyo and Osaka, crashed into mountains in Gunma Prefecture with the loss of 520 lives.

From the cathedral town of Norwich, in East Anglia, Tudor was marketing agricultural equipment when he noticed that Japan’s national airline was advertising for PR assistance in the U.K. He applied, went on holiday, and while at Land’s End in Cornwall, received a telegram: Contact JAL in London. Mother.

“One criteria for the job was flying experience. So I whizzed over to the local airfield and went up in a vintage biplane. One circuit of the lighthouse and I had my experience. The last of 72 applicants to be interviewed, I got the job.”

Two years later, in the autumn of 1974, he was offered the chance to work in Japan and thought, “Why not?” With the economy booming and high-quality consumer production, it seemed an interesting place for a young man to explore.

His new task in Tokyo was to help edit a new in-flight magazine, but the oil shock put a stop to that. Instead, he was told to “come anyway” and find something to do. “I began dealing with the media, here and overseas, and basically have been doing that ever since.”

He talks of “the proverbial Tudor luck,” forgetting perhaps that luck is as much made as a matter of fate: grasping opportunities and chances (seizing the day); following guts in the name of intuition.

Like the way he found his house. Visiting Chichibu to see a friend’s house being built, he noticed a small cabin near the station with two more sets of foundations in place. Learning that it was the work of the same carpenter, he bought the lot.

“Taking the Red Arrow train on the Seibu line, the stretch between Chichibu and Hanno is especially lovely: It reflects the passage of the Japanese seasons to perfection.”

A dedicated amateur history buff, especially interested in the interface between Japan and the outside world, Tudor is the acknowledged founder of the Dead Dutchmen Society of Tokyo.

His interest in dead Dutchmen began about 30 years ago when, passing Korinji temple in Hiroo, he noticed a marker for Henry Heuskens and found his grave. This long-forgotten secretary to the first U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, had been murdered in 1861 by dissident samurai while riding home late at night.

“I began taking flowers on the anniversary of his death. Then I was joined by live Dutchman Karel von Wolferen, and others. Now we have an annual ceremony, attended by officials from the embassy, business people and academics.

More recently, Tudor learned of another dead Dutchman, Giijsbery Hemmji, and the neglected tomb of Holland’s head merchant on Dejima, the old trading post in Kyushu, at Kakegawa Tenenji temple on the old route between Nagasaki and Edo.

“Dating from 1898, this has been restored in a joint effort between the Dutch Embassy here and the town of Kakegawa, and this was marked with a ceremony last year attended by the ambassador and the local mayor.”

On quite another tack, but equally interesting, Tudor wrote in the March 2003 edition of Orient Aviation, about Chuhachi Ninomiya, whom he describes as “Japan’s unsung father of flight.”

“The Wright brothers get the glory for the first-ever fully controlled, powered flight just a century ago. But in 1891, a 25-year-old Japanese achieved flight at an army base on Shikoku with an unmanned prototype powered by a twisted rubber motor fashioned from a doctor’s stethoscope.”

Currently, Tudor is fascinated by Japan’s No. 1 hero, Ryoma Sakamoto. This 19th-century kendo activist packed a Smith and Wesson, and introduced an eight-point plan for a modern Japan that included fixed exchange rates and political promotions based on merit. He also wore what looked remarkably like a pair of Chelsea boots, and Tudor is fascinated. “When did Ryoma acquire his famous footgear? Where? And why?”

Yes, Tudor supposes. He will write a book someday, but not yet. There’s just too much quirky stuff out there just waiting for him to stumble upon and reintroduce to the world.

In the meantime, he is helping son James develop his Web site-designing business. Building up training for Kenyon. Enjoying his honorary lifetime membership to the FCCJ (for services rendered). And keeping in touch with old associates.

“Working at JAL gave me the opportunity to do things and meet people that would otherwise have been impossible. I worked with many wonderful people and I’m still in touch with a lot of them. I made a lot of friends.”

Kenyon International: