More men are taking jobs as flight attendants in the traditionally female-dominated profession as smaller Japanese airlines actively look to distinguish themselves from their larger domestic rivals.
The increasingly physical nature of the work combined with the growing need to deal with unruly or drunk passengers, mean so-called soradan (airmen) are being seen in the skies above Japan in larger numbers.
The change also demonstrates how the domestic airline industry is slowly modernizing and gender roles are beginning to reflect what’s considered normal across much of the world.
Koichi Ito, 38, joined Star Flyer Inc., a midsize carrier based at Kitakyushu Airport in Fukuoka Prefecture, as a flight attendant after a stint working at a hotel. Ito said that, as a student, he was impressed with male flight attendants he would see aboard foreign carriers.
“They were cool,” he said. “I wondered why Japanese airlines employed only female cabin crew,” he recalled.
Some possible advantages of being a male attendant include helping passengers stow and unload their increasingly bulky carry-on luggage and other more physical tasks, Ito noted.
“Male and female flight attendants have a different sense for passenger needs, and by combining both genders, the quality of service improves,” he said.
Star Flyer has eight men among its 160 cabin crew members and plans to hire six more male attendants by next summer.
“The use of male cabin attendants is effective in impressing upon passengers that we offer a different service from big airlines,” said a Star Flyer public relations official.
At Jetstar Japan Co., a low-cost carrier based in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, men account for some 15 percent of its flight attendants.
Foreign airlines employ many men as cabin crew members, reflecting the difference in domestic airlines’ concept of hospitality.
Men only account for about 1 percent of the flight attendants at both of the country’s two major airlines — Japan Airlines Co. and All Nippon Airways Co. — considerably lower than the 40 percent at Singapore Airlines Ltd. and the 10 percent at Korean Air Lines Co.
A public relations official from Air France, where more than 30 percent of cabin attendants are men, noted that France has a modern culture in which men work widely across the service industry.
In contrast, Japanese airlines had until recently almost exclusively employed young female attendants on international flights, said an executive of a leading domestic airline, apparently to please their business clientele, who were mostly men.
But now the situation is changing.
“An increase in young women and foreigners among passengers has created various needs, including those that can be met by male crew members,” said Hiroki Nakamura, 38, a male attendant with Japan Airlines.
“We’ve also seen a rise in male cabin attendants in their 20s,” he said.
Aviation analyst Kotaro Toriumi said an increase in the number of female cabin crew members who continue to work in the field after marriage and childbirth has changed the perception about the occupation, with men now considering it a viable career choice and, it seems, valuing it more highly.
Kodansha Ltd.’s weekly comic “Soradan,” a portrayal of an 18-year-old boy who has lost hope and becomes a flight attendant in an effort to turn his life around, has also put the spotlight on male cabin crew members.
“When I was doing research (for the comic), I learned that male crew members play a role in solving trouble, such as with drunk or belligerent passengers,” said Issei Itokawa, the female author of the series, which ran until this summer in Morning magazine. “I hope my manga will encourage many men to become soradan.”