Japan’s One-in-a-Hundred Female Pilot in the Air, Rugby Referee on the Ground

“I completely agree with her view,” said Richie McCaw, the legendary player of the rugby kingdom New Zealand, or rather, world rugby.

By Nobuhiko Otomo

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While flying as a pilot, Eri Kamimura is also a rugby referee and a five-time national team player. (Photo courtesy of J-AIR)

“I completely agree with her view,” said Richie McCaw, the legendary player of the rugby kingdom New Zealand, or rather, world rugby. He was All Blacks captain for the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups, with the team becoming the first consecutive champion in history. After retiring as a player, the rugby kingdom hero made an amazing transition.

After stepping off the field, the legendary player got hold of the control stick and sat in the cockpit. He became a commercial pilot who flies helicopters and airplanes. Mainly conducting sightseeing flights, his role is to let tourists fully enjoy the glaciers, steep mountains, and fjords—the magnificent landscapes of New Zealand.

This summer, I interviewed McCaw online, and I told him about the words of another rugby-player-turned-pilot I recently talked with.

“A female rugby referee in Japan told me that the role of a rugby player and a pilot are very similar. Various things happen during a game and in a flight. Even if you can’t make 100% response to everything, you shouldn’t get too caught up in it. You have to be prepared for the next thing.”

When McCaw heard that, he said, “Exactly. I completely agree.”

“During a flight, various things like changes in weather happen. Instead of being fixated in solving each problem, you need to see the bigger picture. Also, in a rugby match, you must think about your own move and how it functions within the team. I myself, when I faced a tough situation during a game, would enjoy considering how to solve that. The role of a pilot is also like that. Even in a crisis, you need to be cool and not panic,” he said.

Being a Rugby Referee and a Pilot

It was 31-year-old Eri Kamimura, one of the top female referees in Japan and a professional pilot, that mentioned the words McCaw identified with. 

Kamimura is a former rugby player, a five-time member of Japan’s national team for women’s rugby 15s, including the 2012 Asian Four Nations Championship and 2013 World Cup Asia Qualifiers. She was a center three-quarter back (CTB).

Her current profession is a pilot working for J-AIR, a Japan Airlines (JAL) group company. From the base in Itami, Osaka, she pilots the flights mainly to Sapporo Chitose and Haneda, and routes to regional cities such as Sendai, Aomori, Yamagata, Miyazaki, and Kagoshima.

By the way, how many female pilots are there?

“Very few. Of the 300 pilots in my company, there are only 15 women including trainees, so a little over 5%. Yet we are on the high side. They say it is 1% ratio for the entire country.”  

This is a larger gender gap than in the world of politics. For Kamimura, it was rugby that played a part in leading her to this piloting career.

In July 2016, a ceremony was held in Narita Airport to see off the Sakura Sevens (women’s sevens national rugby team) heading for the Rio Olympics. Kamimura was the one who handed a bouquet and a flag with messages written on it to the team’s captain, Chiharu Nakamura.

“At the time, I was a ground crew at JAL. I joined as a career-track engineer and after being an aircraft mechanic in overalls for two years, I had been working in the office for a year.”

Kamimura began rugby when she was a freshman at Waseda University, joining Setagaya Ladies. During her senior year in 2012, she became a member of the national team. As a CTB specializing in hard tackles, she played in the women’s 15s World Cup Qualifiers the following year. In the away game, Japan almost got hold of Kazakhstan, the strongest team in Asia then, but lost at 23-25, and did not make it to the World Cup.

That day, the national team members she saw off at Narita included Ayaka Suzuki, Marie Yamaguchi, Yuka Kanematsu, Chisato Yokoo, Chiharu Nakamura, and Aya Takeuchi, her former teammates that fought that World Cup Qualifiers, and Yokoo, Keiko Kato, Makiko Tomita, and Reiko Taniguchi, her seniors at the Setagaya Ladies who taught her rugby when she joined the team with no experience in the sport. The other players were also familiar faces she always saw at training camps and tournaments.

Watching her fellow players leave for Rio, Kamimura felt a burning passion rise in her heart. Her buddies were following their dreams through rugby, flying off to compete on the world stage.

What about me?

“I’ve always wanted to be a pilot,” says Kamimura.

Fly the skies—that was her dream since childhood. When she graduated from university, her first job preference was a pilot. But at the time, JAL had stopped recruiting new graduates for its pilot training program, and she could only apply for All Nippon Airways (ANA). Though she prepared for the hiring exam between her busy schedule of training camps and tours, she failed. Still, seeking to get closer to the skies, she applied for JAL, which was only hiring career-track personnel, and got the highly competitive position.

Two years as a mechanic and a year as an office personnel, she worked near airplanes. The mechanic’s job was interesting. She was starting to think maybe it was not so bad continuing like this. It was around this time that she saw off the Sakura Seven members. As she watched them take off, a desire to challenge and the yearning for the skies came rushing back. “I want to fly the skies. I want to become a pilot.”

Working Each Step for Qualifications and Trainings to Finally Become a Copilot

With her mind set, she was quick to act. If the company does not hire pilots through the in-house training program, she can get qualified elsewhere.

Six months later, in March 2017, Kamimura quit her job at JAL, a workplace many people would die for. She became a research student at Sojo University in Kumamoto Prefecture, which had a training course for aviation pilots. Becoming a jet airliner pilot requires several national qualifications. Six months later, in September 2017, she first gained the qualification for a private pilot, followed by those for a commercial pilot, land multi-engine piston rating, instrument rating…… After two full years, Kamimura gained five qualifications.

Then, in 2019, J-AIR hired her as a trainee. Of course, you need more than qualifications to fly commercial routes. For another year, she went through a long-term training and strict internal review while acquiring aeronautical radio operator and class 1 aviation medical certificates. In September 2020, J-AIR finally appointed her as its copilot. As a piloting member, she began flying the commercial routes.

A life in pursuit of becoming a pilot brought her another form of pleasure.

Sojo University, where Kamimura attended, is in Kumamoto Prefecture. Around that time, Sweetie Lady Bears, a new women’s rugby team, was established in Kumamoto, and Kamimura had a chance to play. Then, she was asked to do the referee for a game, which often happens in amateur rugby. Being a committed type of person, she thought if she was going to do it, she might as well do it properly, and gained the referee license in 2018.

The news that a former national team player began referee activities reached Japan Rugby Football Union’s referee department. In 2019, the year she joined J-AIR, the Women Referee Academy selected her as its sixth-generation member. Although unsure whether this was by her own accord, it paved her way to become a female top referee.

Thus, she began a lifestyle of working as a pilot, a special job responsible for many lives, and running around on the pitch as a referee on her days off. Because of the COVID pandemic, there were few refereeing opportunities in 2020. But in 2021, she was the referee for the four matches in Taiyo Life Women’s Sevens Series, the Regional Sevens Kansai sub-tournaments, and the National High School Sevens Tournament in July.

Balancing It with 60-70 Flights a Month

Yet isn’t it difficult juggling piloting and refereeing?

“The hardest part is adjusting my schedule. You don’t always get the weekends off with this job, and you can’t work remotely.”

A pilot works roughly 20 days a month, and normally conducts 60 to 70 flights. Which would be three to four flights a day. She says she sometimes works 10 hours straight.

Currently, her referee activity is something she does for pleasure. Many of the referees who belong to the top teams do refereeing as part of their social contribution activities with the understanding of their employers. But Kamimura does her refereeing by using her paid leaves.

She receives frequent inquiries from the Rugby Football Union’s referee department, asking, “Can you go to this game?” But it is almost impossible to change shifts with a short notice. When they asked if she could go to an overseas tournament, it would have been possible during normal times. But under the current situation with the pandemic, she would have to go through a quarantine period upon returning to Japan. That would be inconvenient for her job, so she could not accept the offer.

“The training environment is also tough. I’m away from home for about 10 days a month with my work, so I can’t train at a particular gym. For training, I go to public gyms, parks, and riverside areas near where I stay. I check the GPS data on my Garmin device and then use my instincts to adjust the intensity.”

“And I mustn’t get injured. You need to do trainings that pushes yourself to the limit, but you mustn’t be left with fatigue that will affect your flight. The hard part is finding the right balance. Even about suntan, if you look at it from a long-term perspective, it may affect your health. I take the aviation medical exam once a year. If you fail, it takes a lot of work to get back in. It’s vital to remain physically apt for flying, so I’m very careful with my health. There are also screenings three times a year to maintain other qualifications, and these are tough too.”   

Does doing the referee benefit piloting in any way, or vice versa? To my question, Kamimura responded, “Pilots and referees have things in common.”

“I tend to get focused on one thing. As a player, I was like that. I often lose sight of the whole picture. But both pilots and referees need to have a broad vision and grasp the big picture without being too caught up on minor details. I learn a lot from that.” 

During a flight, pilots must process a huge amount of information in an instant. The cockpit has rows of instruments for that. While staring at each one trying to make an accurate judgement, the plane could travel hundreds or thousands of meters in a flash. In the meantime, the view of the ground that requires checking with the eyes will have changed entirely.

So if there is anything that concerns you, pay attention to that while continuing to follow the whole picture. Seeing the forest as well as the trees—that’s what pilots have in common with referees. And when I told McCaw about this idea, he completely agreed with it.

“It’s fun tackling the things you’re not good at, and you can learn and grow from the experience. I believe refereeing is the ultimate hobby. I can make use of the things I learned at work in my refereeing, and the other way round, and it’s really interesting,” says Kamimura.

We should welcome the situation with more full-time referees, and it is inevitable. Yet, it should be okay for those with professions in other fields to enjoy doing referees in their spare time as they build their career. Having referees with various attributes will benefit both the refereeing and the games.  

Kamimura’s goal is to officiate an international tournament.

“When I was a player, our team lost in the Asia qualifiers, and I could not compete on the world stage. If I can make it, I would like to see the global level as a referee and be on the field of world competition.”

There are very few female referees. In the October announcement on Class A referees in Japan, there were 29 men and 1 woman. This is close to the ratio of female pilots. Change this figure, open the closed doors—with such ambitions in mind, Kamimura, who has opened many doors in the past, sits in the cockpit, goes running along a river, and faces her PC screen for refereeing preparation.

The pilot of the plane you see up in the sky today may be the referee for the game you play (watch) tomorrow.

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