Mike Katagiri was elated. The day before his graduation from the Stanford MBA program,
he went to a bar and bought two MegaMillion tickets just for the heck of it. Right after the
commencement ceremony, he found out that he won a 35-million-dollar jackpot.
An international student from Japan, he had 60 days to leave the country. He thought of taking practical training in California, but he'd rather want to build his own
business for the long-term, so he packed up, sold his car, shipped much of his stuff to his
quaint hometown of Takayama, and headed off to the SFO.
As he went through the lines and screening, he thought, "When my dad was in college, international travel used to be for fun." As he watched airplanes move off tarmacs and take off, an idea came into his mind, a brilliant one: an airline company that focuses on
fun, combining the traditional rural Japanese hospitality with Mike's penchant for wacky
showmanship. A "Benihana" of airline business meets Virgin Atlantic.
As soon as his United flight arrived at the KIX, he began putting his idea into action.
Navigating through the heavy Japanese regulations and webs of social customs and
connections, though eroding in recent years, is challenging. He and his associates, all U.S.educated MBAs, decided on leasing a fleet of two second-hand 767s from All Nippon and
start small; after all, their airplanes are to become destinations in themselves – a kind of
flying theme park. Moving people would be the secondary benefit, though important.
They have renovated the interiors of the aircrafts to resemble a traditional rural Japanese
farm house found commonly in the mountainous regions. They chose smaller and older airports closer to cities, not major airports that are
invariably far away from inner-city cores. This was also to save money on landing fees and
other expenses. They settled on flying between the Nagoya Komaki Airfield and the
Sapporo Okadama Airport; there would be adequate demand for the route, and the flight
would be long enough for the passengers to take in the unique experience.
"We sell the 'Ye Olde Tyme' Japan," proclaimed Mike. "Airlines feel too westernized
everywhere, and this strategy would appeal to foreign tourists from around the world."
A year later, Kamikaze Airlines was officially born. The media descended upon the
Komaki Airport for the virgin flight's takeoff. Publicity-hungry Mike wanted some VIPs to show up at the tape-cutting; in the end he managed to coerce the mayor of the Town of
Toyoyama, where the airport is actually located, to come and give a little speech, in
exchange for a promise that Kamikaze Airlines would create 20 jobs in Toyoyama.
The airplanes were largely black and with the big Rising Sun flag painted on the tail.
"That thing looks like a gaisensha," blurted out a reporter from the Chunichi Shimbun. A
Korean TV journalist could not hide her discomfort. A group of 10 reporters were invited
aboard the first Kamikaze flight. The aircraft was outfitted with tatami mats and a flight
attendant in a ninja garb began skillfully throwing neatly packaged oshibori hot towels onto
the laps of every passenger as he walked through the aisle. Another flight attendant, in a
geisha outfit, gave a requisite safety instruction. The pilot in a complete samurai regalia
then came out of the cockpit and bowed down to the passengers, then went back into the
"Psst," an American journalist called out a flight attendant. "As this is called
Kamikaze Airlines, I hope we'll all land somewhere, alive and in one piece."
Aside from the flashiness of the décor and the bizarre staff, the flight was reasonably comfortable and uneventful. Mike had recruited a former manager of Torisuzu to run Ninja
Catering Services, Inc., Kamikaze's subsidiary to provide an "authentically Kamikaze in-flight dining experience in the sky."
As the airplane neared touchdown in Sapporo, the pilot and all flight attendants
shouted in unison: Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! This scared the hell out of the western
reporters who only knew "banzai" as a code word for suicide.
Mike was shocked to see him and his crew greeted by protesters outside the
Okadama Airport. "Stop glorifying Japan's fascist past," read a banner. Another read
"Down with Neo-Nazi Katagiri and his flying gaisensha."
As soon as he checked in at a downtown Sapporo hotel, he turned the TV on and
flipped through channels. He saw Japanese comedians making fun of Kamikaze Airlines'
"quixotic quest." On CNN he watched the hostile reactions from Korean, Singaporean and
Chinese government officials threatening to boycott Japan and to forbid all Japanese
aircrafts from entering their airspaces unless the Japanese government shuts Kamikaze
down. On American network TV, he saw Jay Leno having a great time poking fun at what
Mike thought would have been a brilliant game-changer in the airline industry.
"Katagiri-shacho, Katagiri-shacho," he was interrupted by knocks on the door. He
slowly opened the door and saw his Chief Operations Officer accompanied by two
Hokkaido police officers. "We have received a credible threat from a group that appears to
be a front for North Korean propaganda operation that they are after a Kamikaze flight, so
in consultation with the National Police Agency and the Civil Aviation Bureau, all Kamikaze
Airlines flights are grounded until further notice."
Mike used his lottery winning towards the expensive startup costs; now he has twice
as much in debts, and with the bad publicity and forced grounding of flights, he lost all
prospects for recovering the loss. A lucky day became his nightmare.
About three hours later, several people called the police emergency line reporting
that a man jumping off the hotel screaming "Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!"
Copyright © 2013 by the author.