National / Social Issues

Bucking superstition, Japanese woman tunnels way to top of civil-engineering world

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

For civil engineer Reiko Abe, 55, being competent at her job was never enough. Her sex and the superstitions surrounding it caused her to be turned away from job interviews and construction sites in Japan.

After clawing her way to the top of the male-dominated tunnel engineering industry, however, she is now president of Oriental Consultants India Pvt. Ltd., the Indian branch of a Japanese construction consultancy.

Abe was no different from any other engineer. The only thing that set her apart was that she had to fight her way to international success by battling the patriarchal and conservative society that runs Japan.

“I was told ‘You can’t do it’ all the time, so that’s what made me go out and prove to them that I could. If things had gone smoothly, without any trouble, I would just have been a normal engineer. I had no choice but to break through the walls that stood in front of me,” Abe said in an interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo.

The odds were stacked against Abe well before she started.

Take her choice to become a tunnel engineer. She didn’t necessarily have an exceptional passion for tunnels — she just entered the profession because female engineers didn’t have much of a choice in the 1980s.

At the time, it was standard for juniors at Yamaguchi University, where Abe earned her bachelor’s degree, to ask a professor to mentor them during their final year and help them find a job.

But Abe was turned away by most. They knew that, as a woman, Abe would have trouble finding a job after graduation unless she became a civil servant, which she had no intention of becoming.

“I wanted to work at a general construction contractor so much. I wanted to create things,” Abe explained.

In the end, the only professor who agreed to take her under his wing was a tunnel specialist, and that was how she began molding her career as a tunnel engineer.

“I didn’t have the luxury of choosing whether I wanted to build bridges or dams,” Abe said.

As expected, Abe was “turned away at the doors of all the companies” she applied to, leaving her with no choice but to further her education in tunnel engineering, resulting in a master’s degree.

Even then, she didn’t fare much better with her job hunt — most companies didn’t even bother inviting her for an interview. She only managed to get one interview — near the end of the application process — because her professor put in a good word for her with a former student who happened to be the president of a construction company.

At last, she landed a job.

But working as a female engineer in the 1990s was just the start of a struggle to gain equal footing with her male peers.

Although work was smooth sailing for the first few years of her career, her sex eventually became a hindrance because of a Japanese superstition that prevented her from entering the construction sites.

According to the superstition, the god of a mountain is a jealous woman who will cause accidents if a woman enters the construction site of a tunnel.

“I’d heard about the oral tradition, maybe when I was in my second year of graduate school . . . but I didn’t take it seriously then,” Abe said. “I didn’t think such a tradition would actually affect me. I only found out that I wouldn’t be allowed to enter tunnels once I started working.”

Co-workers had no qualms about her working on open cut tunnel projects, where a trench is dug first in natural daylight and then covered later, forming an actual tunnel. But they wouldn’t allow her to enter places that were being dug completely underground because of superstition.

“If natural light could enter the construction site, it didn’t matter so much whether you were a man or a woman . . . so in a way the belief was a bit far-fetched,” Abe said.

“I ended up becoming an engineer who couldn’t even enter tunnels,” she recalled.

As the years went on, Abe began to feel she was getting left behind as her male peers gained more hands-on experience while she was relegated to her desk. As an engineer, not getting on-site experience was a critical issue.

That’s when she felt there was no other choice but to do something to set herself apart. So she applied for a scholarship from the company to study in Norway to gain an international edge over her peers and get experience in a less discriminatory environment.

The gamble paid off. After graduating from the Norwegian university, she went global by getting involved in tunnel projects from Ukraine and Taiwan to Indonesia and India.

And she shows no sign of slowing down.

Abe is hoping a plan to build bullet trains in India will take off. But given a career spanning some 30 years, she also feels she is in position to pass on her knowledge.

“Now I’ve come to a point where it’s not about me working for myself, but rather about me passing on my experiences to the younger generations. So I’d like to put a lot more effort into teaching.”

And what does she want to pass on?

“That you can do anything if you put your heart into it,” she said.

“I’ve overcome so many obstacles in my life, but that’s why I am here. So I’m actually very grateful that I was born a woman. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have come this far.”