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Japanese Abroad

Grand Design

Reiko Abe Takes the Power of Japanese Civil Engineering Abroad

“No women allowed at tunnel excavation sites. A mountain is ruled by a goddess, and she would become jealous if a woman were to come inside. The tunnel might cave in.” Even in the 1990s that warning was heeded in the world of tunnel engineering in Japan, so although Reiko Abe was a technical expert holding a master’s degree in civil engineering, she was not allowed to set foot in a tunnel construction site.

Abe was born in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which faces Kyushu and is separated from it by the sea. She still remembers her father telling her “civil engineering experts made a tunnel that goes under there” when he took her to see the Kanmon Straits as a child. Wanting to build big things, Abe decided to become a civil engineer, and was the first woman to graduate from Yamaguchi University’s engineering school. She then studied tunnel engineering in graduate school at Kobe University, and later joined a general contractor as its first female civil engineer.

Women, however, still could not work at tunnel construction sites. To break down this barrier, Abe applied for an intramural overseas study grant. “Please choose me,” she pleaded. “I will not disappoint you.”

Her enthusiasm was convincing, and she went to study at the Norwegian Institute of Technology. After receiving her master’s degree, Abe was finally able to go inside a tunnel under construction at a site in Nordkapp in the northernmost reaches of Europe. She realized she could build tunnels outside of Japan.

After returning to Japan, she was put in charge of quality assurance for the tunnel works of the Taiwan High Speed Railway Project. She then transferred to a construction consulting firm and was sent off to India, where she took charge of construction on the Delhi Metro Project as well as the Bangalore Metro Project, both Indian government projects backed by loans from Japan.

Working in the civil engineering field was not easy for a woman in India either. One high official of a local government corporation who came to the construction site pointed toward Abe—who appeared to be the person overseeing tunnel work by some forty thousand workers—and asked his secretary, “Is that person a man or a woman?” Abe laughs as she recalls how unbelievable it was considered then for a woman simply to be at a construction site, much less be the person in charge.

Abe went on to develop a safety and environmental system geared for developing countries, incorporating recent Japanese advances at construction sites. For example, in Bangalore she introduced the use of a smart-phone program Yamaguchi University had created that could measure the amount of mineral dust in the workplace, and received the “Best Safety Award” from the president of the Bangalore Metro. In March 2014, she earned her Ph.D. with a dissertation on environmental improvement in developing countries.

Oriental Consultants Global, the general construction consulting firm that Abe now works for, consults on projects such as subways, roads, water and sewage systems, airports, ports and other infrastructure for more than 140 countries. One huge project for Qatar even involves planning where to lay out roads and railways, construct airports and such. The little girl who once thought she wanted to build something big has a career now doing exactly that.

Abe became the president of the Oriental Consultants Global subsidiary in India in October 2014. She continues to carry out her professional mission: to pass on the comprehensive strength of Japan’s advanced technologies and safety and quality management to the world. Abe also lectures not only in Japan but at Indian universities as well, striving to bring up a new generation of bold, self-reliant women.

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