Airborne Dreams

“Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways

Airborne Dreams

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 12 photographs Published: January 2011

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

In 1955 Pan American World Airways began recruiting Japanese American women to work as stewardesses on its Tokyo-bound flights and eventually its round-the-world flights as well. Based in Honolulu, these women were informally known as Pan Am’s “Nisei”—second-generation Japanese Americans—even though not all of them were Japanese American or second-generation. They were ostensibly hired for their Japanese-language skills, but few spoke Japanese fluently. This absorbing account of Pan Am’s “Nisei” stewardess program suggests that the Japanese American (and later other Asian and Asian American) stewardesses were meant to enhance the airline’s image of exotic cosmopolitanism and worldliness. As its corporate archives demonstrate, Pan Am marketed itself as an iconic American company pioneering new frontiers of race, language, and culture. Christine R. Yano juxtaposes the airline’s strategies and practices with the recollections of former “Nisei” flight attendants. In interviews with the author, these women proudly recall their experiences as young women who left home to travel the globe with Pan American World Airways, forging their own cosmopolitan identities in the process. Airborne Dreams is the story of an unusual personnel program implemented by an American corporation intent on expanding and dominating the nascent market for international air travel. That program reflected the Jet Age dreams of global mobility that excited postwar Americans, as well as the inequalities of gender, class, race, and ethnicity that constrained many of them.


“[A] very interesting book that tells the history of Pan Am and its international stewardess program begun in the mid-1950s. The book features personal interviews and commentary from Japanese-Americans who flew the Pacific Pan Am air routes out of Hawaii, routes that opened up opportunities even as they made a name for an airline moving into the jet age.“ — Mark Petnuch, "Reader Recommendations," Christian Science Monitor

“[This] book ... certainly paints a fascinating picture of the background to the American gender and racial issues that still fill the big screens of the world, and it broadens out the stereotypical anti-communist image that preceded America’s entry into Vietnam.... Definitely an anthropology book worth taking out into the big wide world!” — John Hendry, Pacific Affairs

“Historians who use oral histories will be sympathetic to Yano's ambition to use the small details of everyday life to illuminate the larger issues of corporations and nations. . . . That she was able to recover the history of this small changing cadre at all is impressive and valuable. . . . [I]t would be a mistake not to embrace the notion of the aircraft cabin on an international flight as a ‘frontier,’ and to miss the complex cultural analysis that Yano provides in this deft study of pioneering Japanese American women.” — Gail Cooper, American Historical Review

“In her intriguing study…. [H]er analysis of the Nisei experience is absolutely enlightening… Yano’s book joins an important array of works on the cultural dimensions of aviation history and shows convincingly that the airplane, while central to the global experience, would have amounted to little without the social dynamics that accompanied its commercial use.” — Guillaume de Syon, Canadian Journal of History

“Yano’s book is an especially appealing addition to the literature because it juxtaposes the macro-level analysis of corporate behavior and the institutional context within which it plays out, with the micro-level analysis of the individuals involved. Airborne Dreams can thus be read as both a study in an international corporation’s elaborate marketing strategy rolled out in postwar America and as a study in the lives of those who were being used as the centerpiece of that strategy.” — Kathleen Montgomery, Administrative Science Quarterly

Airborne Dreams does a wonderful job complicating our understanding of the post-World War II era and the experiences of people of Asian descent who have both benefited from the growth of cosmopolitanism and who were used, because of their racial difference, for financial gain.” — Krystyn Moon, Pacific Historical Review

Airborne Dreams provides an exciting and little-known account of Japanese American flight attendants who worked on Pan American World Airways in the wake of the postwar Jet Age....[Yano’s] research ... provides important insights to those interested in the cultural and social aspects of marketing and branding, especially in the context of globalization.”
— Richard Langer, Enterprise & Society

“In this carefully crafted book, Christine Yano provides a compelling account of an emerging cosmopolitanism in the postwar ‘Jet Age.’ . . . It is written in a highly accessible fashion without sacrificing the complexity of analysis and theoretical sophistication and will make an excellent text for a wide range of courses in anthropology, sociology, history, gender studies, race and ethnic studies, and global studies.” — Sawa Kurotani, American Ethnologist

“More than any other airline, Pan Am stood as an icon of the jet age. . . . A key part of the airline’s appeal was its employment of attractive, ‘exotic’ stewardesses as gateways to the wide, unexplored world. University of Hawaii professor Christine Yano’s Airborne Dreams explores a fascinating twist on that exoticism–Pan Am’s pursuit of young Nisei stewardesses from Hawaii. . . . Nevermind that very few of these women spoke Japanese, let alone traveled there themselves–Airborne Dreams explores the ways these Nisei women found themselves at the center of Pan Am’s ascendancy as an icon of global air travel in the mid-1950s.” — Ragnar Carlson, Honolulu Weekly

“This unique study adds something distinctly different to the wide shelf of books about the late and often lamented US flag carrier that faded into bankruptcy late in 1991. . . . That the author teaches anthropology at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu suggests the research approach, but should not put off non-academic readers. For rather than a book of arcane methodology, this is a fascinating study of how and why the airline came to hire the Nisei, their experiences, and how they contributed to Pan Am’s overall image and service.” — Airways Magazine

“Yano's study is fascinating, multilayered and rather deep, and the book will reward the reader with social insights about the intricate dance between corporate culture and cultural identity as the world went transnational in the 20th century.” — Burl Burlingame, Honolulu Star-Advertiser

“Yano does a wonderful job of weaving together disparate threads—theoretical concepts, historical information, and cultural vectors—to tell and analyze the Pan Am ‘Nisei’ stewardess story. . . . I found Airborne Dreams to be a thoroughly enjoyable, incisive, and enlightening read.” — Naoko Shibusawa, Hawaiian Journal of History

“Yano's timely publication, the first of several recent books as well as a TV show on the company, will inspire readers to imagine or recall their own encounters with Pan Am.” — Shiho Imai, Business History Review

Airborne Dreams advances our understanding of the history of civil aviation, of Pan Am and of the ‘Nisei’ stewardesses. The style is clear and smooth without abstruse theories. It should draw the attention not only of academia but of a general readership as well.” — Yang Shen, Feminist Review

Airborne Dreams is a fascinating study of how the gendered, raced, and sexed bodies of Nisei stewardesses helped sustain and bolster an airline that defined an era—and the United States—during a period of increasing global power and influence." — Lindsey Feitz, American Studies

“A captivating ethno-history. . . . Clearly, Airborne Dreams would bene?t scholars in American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women Studies who are interested in researching how tourism has helped to consolidate the U.S. empire. Airborne Dreams would also assist graduate students in these ?elds to produce research that would combine an analysis of archival material – in-?ight magazines and photographs – with privileging the perspectives of the ‘Nisei’ stewardesses whom Yano interviewed. Signi?cantly, the book goes beyond the mere collection of data with the effect that the reader gains insight regarding the role of touristic culture in U.S. multicultural society.”  — Joy T. Taylor, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism

Airborne Dreams draws big, compelling themes from the experiences of a small group of women who put a distinctive spin on the stewardess mystique. Christine R. Yano deftly explores the gender and racial stereotypes, complex class relations, and corporate ambitions that prompted Pan Am’s hiring of Japanese American flight attendants at the height of the airline’s cultural and commercial dominance. Equally important, we get a rich portrait of the opportunities and pleasures that her subjects found in their work and the ways that they transcended the very stereotypes they represented.” — Kathleen M. Barry, author of Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants

Airborne Dreams is a fascinating account of Pan Am’s ‘Nisei’ program and the ways that it embodied interrelated conceptions of postwar America, gender and racial politics, globalism, and cosmopolitanism. By combining sources ranging from airline archives to interviews with many former Pan Am stewardesses, Christine R. Yano has given us a refreshingly novel understanding of corporate history and its relation to key social and cultural issues.” — Laura Miller, author of Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Christine R. Yano is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai`i, Manoa. She is the author of Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Hawai`i’s Cherry Blossom Festival and Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface: Conducting Research the "Pan Am Way" vii

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: The Pan Am Skies as Frontier of Jet-Age Mobility 1

1. 1955: Postwar America, Things Japanese, and "One-World" Tourism 17

2. "The World's Most Experienced Airline": Pan Am as Global, National, and Personal Icon 33

3. "Nisei" Sterwardesses: Dreams of Pan American's Girl-Next-Door Frontier 57

4. Airborne Class Act: Service and Prestige as Racialized Spectacle 93

5. Becoming Pan Am: Bodies, Emotions, Subjectivity 129

6. Frontier Dreams: Race, Gender, Class, Cosmopolitan Mobilities 161

Appendix: Chronology of Pan American World Airways, 1927–1991 183

Notes 187

Bibliography 205

Index 221
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4850-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4836-8
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