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‘Dreams’ explores Pan Am’s nisei hires

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Duke University’s aggressive press once again picks up a title that is of interest to Hawaii, although if this book had been published locally, it probably wouldn’t have put quotes around "Nisei" in the title. As it is, this is a fascinating, complex and thoroughly scholarly study of a one-time social phenomenon that had enormous impact — but it took Yano’s discerning analysis to discover how critical an impact.

In response to competition to new routes awarded to Japan Air Lines in the mid-’50s, Pan Am World Airways’ quick-footed executives began recruiting nisei stewardesses, largely from Hawaii. They needed to be multilingual, educated and presentable. They became showpiece employees for the airline to the point where Pan Am featured them on around-the-world flights. They broke the color and ethnic barriers then prevalent in the white male-dominated American airline industry, going to work years before black and Hispanic "stews" were hired.

"Airborne Dreams — ‘Nisei’ Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways"

By Christine R. Yano

(Duke University Press, $22.95)

 

It wasn’t easy for the nisei women. Not only was the work demanding and high profile, often their families objected to what they thought was a degrading career choice. Pan Am, they discovered, was an absolute meritocracy, a nascent image of a multinational corporation with its roots planted deep in a thoroughly American cultural ethos. Pan Am employees who met the airline’s work ethic felt themselves to be proud examples of Americanism around the globe. Even though the company imploded nearly two decades ago, former Pan Am employees are fiercely protective of the cosmopolitanized corporation that shaped them. They’re sort of like "not former, but always" Marines in that way.

It’s hard to imagine that kind of bottom-up loyalty to top-down management in today’s corporate culture. It simply doesn’t exist anymore.

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.

It’s not, however, a breezy or gossipy read. Yano’s approach is strictly scholarly, professorial and verbally challenging, best taken in short, meditative bursts. It is cool, highly professional and a bit daunting, much as Pan Am’s stewardesses appeared to be.

 

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