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Airborne Dreams: Christine R. Yano

During the postwar era in the mid 1950s, in the midst of gender and racial politics, globalism, and cosmopolitanism, Pan Am introduced its “Nisei” stewardess program with the hiring of Japanese American flight attendants for its Tokyo-bound flights. Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways, by Dr. Christine Yano, weaves together the story of Pan Am, America’s premiere airline during this era, and its strategies for expanding and dominating the international air travel, with the recollection and experiences of these “Nisei” stewardesses, who forged their own cosmopolitan identities in the process.

It was a very small notice in the local Honolulu newspaper of a 50th anniversary of flight attendants for Pan Am, dubbed “Nisei Stewardesses” that was the inspiration for the book. “This piqued my interest”, says Yano, “so I contacted them, and their stories became the genesis of the book.” While interviewing her subjects, Yano was most surprised by their continued dedication and loyalty to the airline. “Pan Am really defined these women,” says Yano. In interviews with the author, these women proudly recalled their experiences as young women who left home to travel the globe with Pan American World Airways, learning the ways of cosmopolitanism and upper-class service.

Even today, loyalty to Pan Am still resonates with former stewardesses and fans of the airline. “Whenever I give a talk on the book, some former Pan Am flight attendants show up, and inevitably their reaction is that this is truly their story,” recalls Yano. “They reminisce nostalgically, much as the women I interviewed.” The topic also attracts general fans of Pan Am. “One man from Hong Kong told me that his recently deceased wife just adored the airline and was so proud to have a Pan Am bag,” recalls Yano. “Another told me that he has kept all his past ticket stubs from Pan Am. It is this kind of emotion and nostalgia that the airline evokes that has been most surprising,” says Yano.

Currently, Yano is following up Airborne Dreams with ongoing research in Japan with former Pan Am employees, examining Pan Am as a significant part of Japan’s postwar reconstruction and eventual global leader. “My follow-up work in Japan is unique in interpreting postwar Japan through the lens of an American corporation. Pan Am excelled in this, especially with public relations programs that understood product placement and media exposure,” says Yano. “I thus incorporate not only stewardesses, but TV shows, sumo tournaments, films (Kayama, Yuzo), etc., to analyze the ways in which Pan Am became part of postwar Japan’s own modernity.”

As a cultural anthropologist, Dr. Yano has drawn much of her research topics from her own background and life experiences as a Japanese American growing up in Hawaii. Yano’s previous research subjects have ranged from enka music, beauty pageants, Hello Kitty, and Barack Obama. “I had heard enka (Misora Hibari) growing up, even if my parents never sang it or really listened, their older siblings were fans,” recalls Yano. “I had an older cousin who participated in the Cherry Blossom Festival, and I remember my family being really proud of her. And Hello Kitty? Well, she is everywhere,” says Yano. Most recently, Yano completed an Obama no Obama exhibit at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii that brought together Barack Obama goods from Japan and Hawaii. “Through this exhibit, I showcased issues of politics, celebrity, and goods, and hosted 25 visitors from Japan for the opening of the exhibit, including the Mayor of Obama Town (Fukui Prefecture) and 15 hula dancers known as “Obama Girls” from the town.”

With an educational background in musicology and anthropology, Dr. Yano’s research interests lies in the processes by which nation-cultures construct and sustain themselves, in particular in forms of popular culture. “One of my goals as an anthropologist is to explore topics that bridge Japan studies and Japanese American studies,” says Yano. “This is too rarely done, thus my study of a Japanese American beauty pageant included Japan as a site and idea that becomes a source of identity. My study of Hello Kitty looks at the role of Japanese Americans in the spread of this Japanese object in the U.S.,” she continues. “And, my study of Pan Am stewardesses looks at both Japanese Americans and Japanese Nationals in the corporate program.”

Christine R. Yano is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii. She received her B.A. in Communications (Film) from Stanford University, B.A. in Musicology (Ethnomusicology) from the University of Michigan, and graduate degrees (M.A. and Ph.D.) from the University of Hawaii.

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Please join us on January 28, 2012 at 2:00 p.m., as the Japanese American National Museum hosts author Dr. Christine R. Yano for a book reading and conversation. There will be a book signing after the program.

For more information >>

Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways is available to purchase from the Museum Store >>

© 2012 Japanese American National Museum

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The award-winning Museum Store of the Japanese American National Museum features distinctive Asian American merchandise for all occasions and generations. Their unique product line represents the essence of the Japanese American experience, while also promoting an appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. All proceeds from the Museum Store support Museum programs and exhibitions.

The articles in this series were originally written for the Japanese American National Museum’s online store []  to give a deeper understanding of the authors, artists, and traditions featured in the store.