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A couple approach a young woman on a Tokyo street and ask her if she is interested in pursuing a new career.

This is not an attempt to recruit a young girl for a seedy modeling job, but a major life insurance company trying to find a saleswoman.

Big name firms are out looking for new employees on the street because they are under pressure to stem the declining numbers of “seiho ladies,” or insurance saleswomen, the driving force behind Japan’s insurance industry.

With the job’s bad reputation — tough, underpaid and considered lowly work — life insurance companies can expect few women to step forward and apply.

One official at a major life insurer acknowledged that they receive few applications for the position of saleswomen since people have a negative image of the job.

“Major life insurance companies set recruitment quotas for every branch,” said Ichiro Omura, an independent financial planner who runs the consulting firm Intro Service.

Sales staff bring in their friends, and employees try to recruit on the street to try to meet the quota, Omura said.

The salaries is usually fixed at between 160,000 yen and 200,000 yen for the probation period of three to six months, but as the women do not receive proper job training, most of them quit after that period is up, said Omura, who worked for a leading life insurer for 12 years.

“Japanese life insurers are engaged in the mass hiring of saleswomen regardless of their abilities,” he said.

He said that policy has put them in a Catch-22 situation. With so many people quitting after the probation period, firms cannot afford to spend the time and money to train new employees — the very reason they are quitting.

Major life insurers are hiring women in large numbers — ranging anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 a year — but the overall number of sales employees is on the decline due to the low retention rate.

Omura said insurance firms continue mass hiring of women with the idea that while many of the new hires will leave quickly, they will at least sell new policies to relatives.

In contrast, foreign life insurers are seeing increases in their sales forces.

The majority of salespeople at the foreign companies are men. Men have an advantage over women to get these jobs as they tend to have previous sales experience, usually a requirement for the job.

AT Prudential Life Insurance Co., a Japanese unit of American Prudential Financial Inc., had 2,855 salespeople at the end of March, up 43 percent from 2002. About 97 percent of them are men.

“Consumers are becoming more selective,” said Atsushi Kusamoto, a spokesman at Prudential. “The business environment is getting more difficult for seiho ladies who only sell packaged insurance products.”

“We don’t sell packaged insurance products,” Kusamoto said.

Prudential said it only hires people with sales experience in another industry and they are knowledgeable about the tax and legal systems.

“Our salesmen take their time asking their clients’ life plan to map out life insurance policies tailor-made for individual customers,” he said.

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