NEW DELHI – 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.
After overseeing construction safety on Indian metro projects for seven years, she’s been promoted to head Oriental Consultants India Pvt., a unit of Tokyo-based ACKG Ltd. The company is working to extend subway systems in New Delhi and Mumbai and build them in cities including Bangalore and Ahmedabad.
Abe is also overseeing a mass transit project in Jakarta, having previously worked on Taiwan’s high-speed rail network, the metro in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, an undersea tunnel in Norway and an urban planning project in Qatar.
Striding across a construction site, the diminutive Abe yells at a worker who isn’t wearing a safety helmet.
“The most important thing to me is safety,” Abe, wearing her own hard hat, neon safety vest and construction boots, explains during one of several interviews over the past month. “That may be because I’m a woman. I feel that deeply, and I think I sense it in a different way from other engineers because I’m a woman.”
She’s also aware of the impact she’s having for women in providing safe transportation. In a city ignominiously known as the nation’s rape capital, Abe says New Delhi’s women tell her that being able to ride without fear in a clean, air-conditioned car in segregated carriages has been unimaginably liberating.
“It’s something that was taken for granted by men, but wasn’t the norm for women,” explains Abe. One of her happiest memories is of a young woman thanking her for the subway extension that allowed the woman to move freely across the city.
“As a result of what I helped construct, women in New Delhi are able to have a mode of public transport that’s safe for the first time,” Abe says. “That’s an incredible outcome. I’d like to see that across India.”
New Delhi has seen a scourge of high-profile assaults on women. A 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a moving bus sparked nationwide protests. Other rapes have made headlines since then, including of a Danish woman who had lost her way back to her hotel and of an Indian woman taking an Uber taxi last year.
The Indian capital’s residents last week sought refuge in the metro’s air-conditioned stations amid a deadly heat wave that was melting asphalt on roads.
Abe follows a punishing travel schedule. She lives out of hotels and doesn’t bother renting a home. She’s usually the only woman on-site, surrounded by as many as 40,000 male workers.
“She’s a very bold and daring lady,” said G.K. Reddy, a contractor on the Bangalore metro who has known her since 2010, describing how Abe clambered up a reinforced slope during a quality audit to test its safety. “I was shocked.”
Reddy describes an “on-the-job and off-the-job” Abe. One is a tireless supervisor, often more demanding than her male counterparts, who expects quality and punctuality and berates those who don’t meet her standards, which he said is essential in time-bound infrastructure projects where contractors are tempted to cut corners. The other is a down-to-earth colleague who hands out juices and mingles with workers of all levels, overcoming her gender and origin in India’s rigid hierarchy.
“People like her. When she comes, they try harder,” said Reddy. “Not only India, but everywhere you need more people like her. I hope one of my daughters will be the next Ms. Abe.”
Abe admits she’s quick to anger. She says she has fired at least seven drivers in India, and among the most important qualities she looks for when hiring is the ability to follow instructions. When a client in the Middle East once refused to discuss the project’s finances with a woman, she stonily told him that was his problem, as she couldn’t change her sex.
Despite Abe’s efforts, the projects come with glitches. The Bangalore metro’s first line was supposed to be completed in 2011, but currently less than half of it is operating.
India’s metros, financed by low-cost government loans from Japan, are the types of projects that Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes will help modernize his nation. For Japan, Abe plays a key role in bringing the nation’s advanced technology, infrastructure expertise, quality management and track record of safety to countries such as India, the Foreign Ministry said in a written response to questions.
“We’re pleased that a Japanese woman is at the forefront in the field, demonstrating her professional ability and helping to transform Indian society for the better,” the ministry said.
In a Bloomberg View column in April, the prime minister wrote that women such as Abe working abroad serve as a model of female engagement with the nation’s workplace.
“Japan cannot truly thrive in the 21st century unless all our citizens reach their fullest potential,” he wrote.
After graduating with a civil engineering degree from Yamaguchi University, a first for a woman at the institution, Abe discovered that Shinto beliefs and paternalistic notions about protecting women left her without a future. The Labor Standards Act, which banned women from underground construction sites and mines, wouldn’t be revised until 2006; pregnant and postnatal women are still barred.
“No matter how hard I studied or gained experience, I was at a disadvantage because I was a woman,” Abe said. “I had to find ways to overcome that disadvantage: learn English, gain experience in developing countries, work on difficult South Asian projects.
“Somewhere along the way, all of those things became my weapons.”
In less than a year, she taught herself English. She beat 4,000 applicants for a spot in a master’s degree program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and left in 1995. A training position gave her a shot, finally, to work in a tunnel: the undersea North Cape project linking Norway’s mainland to the island of Mageroya.
“If I’d been a man, I wouldn’t have gone overseas because there would’ve been no reason to,” she said. “For me, it was the only way to survive. That makes me glad I’m a woman.”
Abe liked to make things from a young age, a tendency reinforced as an only child who was moved from rural Yamaguchi Prefecture to the city of Osaka when her father’s business failed.
She also cites her mother, a schoolteacher, as a role model who supported her decision to study engineering. She didn’t tell her father until a year after enrolling.
“He was so shocked that he dropped the sake cup he was holding when I finally told him,” she said. “He was very opposed. He told me I would never make it. Today, I guess he’s proud of me. Or maybe he’s just given up on me!”
Abe’s father says he had originally wanted his daughter to become a teacher like her mother because he was “scared to see Reiko jumping into a man’s world.”
“Of course, when I see her in the newspapers and magazines, I’m happy,” he said in comments relayed by the family. “If Reiko says it’s all right, that’s what matters.”
Abe carries her experiences of discrimination lightly. In Taiwan, tunnel workers were also reluctant to have a female engineer on-site.
“They were able to accept me by not seeing me as either a man or woman,” she explained. “I was neither, something unusual — like a panda.”
Abe, though, seems uncomfortable opining on her nation’s future or whether it’s changing fast enough to meet the challenges posed by declining demographics.
“I do feel like I’ve become a representative of Japan’s globalization,” Abe said. “But I’m actually very embarrassed by the attention.”