Asahi breaks new ground with Internet insurance firm

Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Co. announced Friday it will set up the nation’s first Internet-only life insurance company along with Fujitsu Ltd. and other firms.

The major life insurer’s move signals a break from the industry’s tendency to shy away from selling life insurance online for fear of taking business away from sales agents.

Asahi has some 21,000 agents across Japan, who work on commissions and are in charge of selling policies as well as maintaining the contracts.

But Asahi Mutual officials said that the new channel will not jeopardize the position of sales agents, noting that the kinds of products to be sold online would be small-scale policies.

The online firm, to begin operations as early as the beginning of next year with an initial staff of about 20, will offer services via a planned Web site and e-mail, as well as through a call center, the officials said.

Insurance premiums are likely to be cheaper than through conventional channels, they said, noting that the details are yet to be decided.

Asahi Mutual will hold more than 50 percent of the venture, while Fujitsu, Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank and Itochu Corp.are expected to become minor equity participants.

The targeted clientele would be users of @nifty, an Internet service provider operated by Fujitsu and other Net users.

More Net usage seen

A high-tech research firm has predicted that although Japan is currently a distant second to the United States in terms of Internet usage, this will change within two years.

The increase in Internet usage in Japan will be significantly attributable to the use of mobile phones, with the simplified, mostly text-based service this implies, InfoCom Research Inc. said Thursday.

Internet usage in Japan will increase from 24.7 percent of the population in 1999 to 56.5 percent in 2001, the firm said.

During the same period, the percentage of users in the United States will grow from 36.9 percent to 48.5 percent, according to the company, which is 71.3 percent owned by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.

Of the projected 71.77 million Internet users in Japan in 2003, 28.03 million will access the Net by mobile phone, which compared with personal computers have very limited Internet functions.

Those accessing the Internet via mobile phone in the United States will grow to 5 million during the same period, which will allow Japan to overtake the United States in terms of the proportion of the population using the Internet, the research firm said.

In Japan, NTT DoCoMo’s Internet browsing service for cellular phones, which is called i-mode, already has more than 5 million users.