Reiko Abe has become the face of Japan’s global engagement as the nation seeks to overcome its image as an economic laggard and a wasteland for career women.

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Reiko Abe became a civil engineer in Japan, but she couldn’t find a job. An ancient Shinto superstition, made part of Japan’s 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 the nation seeks to overcome its image as an economic laggard and a wasteland for career women. Television advertisements featuring her have run on CNN and the BBC. She’s been lauded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (no relation) for showcasing Japan’s strengths abroad and symbolizing why the country 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, a unit of Tokyo-based ACKG. The company is working to extend subway systems in New Delhi and Mumbai and build them in cities including Bengaluru and Ahmedabad.

Reiko Abe

Age: 51

Previous experience: Worked on Taiwan’s high-speed rail, the metro in Ukraine’s capital, an undersea tunnel in Norway and an urban-planning project in Qatar.

Current post: Leads company building subway lines in four Indian cities and a mass-transit system in Jakarta.

Source: Bloomberg News

Abe is also overseeing a mass-transit project in Jakarta, having previously worked on Taiwan’s high-speed rail, the metro in Ukraine’s capital, 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, explained during one of several interviews.

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 said 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,” said Abe. One of her happiest memories is of a young woman thanking her for the subway extension that allowed her to move freely across the city.

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 Bengaluru 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.”

South Asian projects can test the most experienced engineers. Boring tunnels below poorly constructed buildings is challenging because shaking the ground can topple them. The armies of laborers often are illiterate, speak a multitude of languages and lack skills.

In Bengaluru, the state-run company that contracted Oriental Consultants to help build the metro was comprised of 100 people who had never seen a subway, let alone built one, Abe said.

“You come across situations you’d never imagine in Japan,” she said. “You have to be physically resilient, tough and flexible.”

Reddy describes an “on-the-job and off-the-job” Abe. One is a tireless supervisor, often more demanding than her male counterparts, who demands quality and punctuality and berates those who don’t meet her standards. 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 hierarchy-bound India.

“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. 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.

“I lose my temper about once a day, but sometimes I just have to laugh,” she said, recounting the time a contractor forgot to prepare for a quality audit and brought her a tub of ice cream to make up for it.

Despite Abe’s efforts, the projects come with glitches. The Bengaluru metro’s first line was supposed to be completed in 2011, and now less than half of it is operating.

For Japan, Abe plays a key role in bringing Japan’s advanced technology, infrastructure expertise, quality management and track record of safety to countries such as India, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an emailed response to questions.

Japan’s prime minister wrote that Japanese women such as Abe working abroad serve as a model of female engagement with the workplace: “Japan cannot truly thrive in the 21st century unless all our citizens reach their fullest potential.”

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.

Japan’s Labor Standards Act, which banned women from underground-construction sites and mines, wouldn’t be revised until 2006.

“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.”

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 Mageroya island.

“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 moved from rural Yamaguchi prefecture to Osaka city when her father’s business failed. Suddenly without friends, she retreated into a world where she would build things, such as her own doll house.

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.

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.”