On Oct. 13, 1955, Pan American World Airways stunned the commercial aviation industry by ordering the largest fleet of jet aircraft in the world, officially ushering in the Jet Age. In that same year, the airline embarked on a new personnel program, hiring Japanese American women to serve its Tokyo-bound and famed round-the-world flights.
Although the airline claimed to hire these women to speak Japanese, in order to compete with Japan Air Lines, which began international air travel in 1954, Yano’s analysis shows that beyond language, the women added the look of the exotic Asian woman.
With Honolulu as their base, these women were informally dubbed Pan Am’s “Nisei” stewardesses, even if not all of them were second-generation or Japanese American. Rather, by calling these women “Nisei,” Pan Am drew upon the cultural capital of Nisei war veterans and their minority patriotism.
These women were among the first non-white stewardesses in Pan Am and other airlines’ employ. However this breaking of the racial barrier came not as a matter of civil rights, but as carefully drawn corporate strategy to expand Pan Am’s global domination utilizing some of the drawing power of the Asian woman, according to Yano.
This talk analyzes Pan Am’s “Nisei” stewardess project from its inception in 1955 to 1972, when the women themselves instigated the end of their closed-base status in order to gain more employee rights. This study situates Pan Am’s “Nisei” stewardesses within an era of postwar American empire tied to newfound mobilities symbolized particularly by jets and Asian American women.
Through interviews with the women and archival research, Yano juxtaposes Pan Am’s ambitions with individual aspirations and experiences. She argues that both share mutually constitutive “airborne dreams,” embedded within the nascent cosmopolitanisms of this frontier era known as the Jet Age.
Pan Am’s “Nisei” stewardesses provide an important lens upon a particular period in American history filled with the complexities of assimilationist rhetoric and racialized hiring. Becoming corporate persons in a prestigious American company at the forefront of a global industry – in particular for Japanese Americans only 10 years following the end of World War II – called upon assimilation within the gendered domain of “model minority” femininity and professionalism, Yano says.
The book is available for purchase in the Museum Store.
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