Reiko Abe became a civil engineer, but she couldn't find a job in Japan. An ancient Shinto superstition, made part of the national labor law, held that if a woman entered a tunnel under construction, she would anger the jealous mountain goddess and cause worker accidents.

Two decades later, Abe has become the face of Japan's global engagement as it seeks to overcome the image of an economic laggard and a wasteland for career women. Television ads featuring her have run on CNN and the BBC. She's been lauded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for showcasing the nation's strengths abroad and symbolizing why it needs to promote more women in a workforce where less than 5 percent of managers are female.

The irony? Abe, 51, had to leave Japan.