In Japan’s still male-dominated business world, there is at least one industry in which women have long made their mark: life insurance.

In the case of one 70-year-old saleswoman who asked not to be identified, selling life insurance door-to-door was the ticket to a lucrative career. Honored several times by her employer, at one time she earned some 22 million yen a year.

“At that time, I had about 10 to 20 new contracts per month,” recalled the woman, a veteran of more than 30 years at a leading life insurance company.

She had a hard time in the beginning, but believes her frequent followup visits to customers paid off. “After a while, I began to think this is a great job. Life insurance policies are there to help people if something happens to them.”

She is just one of an army of “seiho ladies,” or life insurance saleswomen. Unlike in the United States, where independent insurance agents are the insurers’ main sales channel, saleswomen on the insurers’ payrolls have long been the backbone of the industry in Japan.

Of course, most are not that successful and many women quit after a few months because they can’t meet their quota, the unnamed woman said.

Now, as the industry faces changes and looks for ways to diversify its sales channels, questions are being raised about where the seiho ladies fit in.

Their history goes back to the early postwar years, when insurance companies recruited war widows who needed to make a living. Most insurers’ sales representatives today are still women. Industry executives believe women are more easily accepted than men on sales calls in offices and homes.

Insurance saleswomen work hard to get to know their communities, strolling around the lobbies of office buildings during lunchtime, handing out candies, pens and calendars emblazoned with the names of their companies, on the hunt for new customers.

Another important market is full-time homemakers. To reach them, there is no substitute for the traditional door-to-door approach.

But pickings are leaner these days. The number of sales reps at life insurance firms has fallen from about 353,000 in fiscal 1997 to about 264,000 in fiscal 2004, according to Life Insurance Association of Japan, a group of 38 major life insurers.

There are several reasons for the decline. As society ages, demand for medical, nursing-care and cancer insurance is rising, while high-commission death coverage is less popular. Tighter office security makes sales calls more difficult. And the growing number of women working outside the home means door-to-door sales are less effective.

Insurers are scrambling to adapt. Sumitomo Life Insurance Co., for example, recently announced a tieup with Mitsui Life Insurance Co. and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. to sell policies at retail outlets starting Oct. 1.

“We will not only sell Sumitomo’s policies but also other companies’ insurance products, so customers will be able to compare to see which product best suits them,” said Toshimatsu Araki, general manager of market planning at Sumitomo Life.

“There is an increasing number of people who prefer to go to an office to discuss life insurance policies,” instead of relying on the saleswomen, he said.

Insurers are also looking to expand their business by selling at banks, once restrictions are fully lifted at the end of 2007.

Despite the shifts, however, many insurance companies say the saleswomen will continue to play a key role.

“We need to boost the number of field salespeople,” said Satoshi Kawakami, a spokesman at Nippon Life Insurance Co.

Nippon Life has 46 sales outlets nationwide, similar to those planned by Sumitomo Life. It believes saleswomen are still important.

“In the last fiscal year, 85 percent of our new contracts came from existing policyholders. We need to increase the number of salespeople and make sure they contact every policyholder without fail,” Kawakami said.

Kawakami added that the biggest challenge for Nippon Life is to develop the skills of sales reps because with the stiffer competition, just calling on existing customers isn’t enough.

Sumitomo Life agrees, noting that 70 percent to 80 percent of its sales come from existing policyholders who add more coverage as they grow older and have children.

“It all comes down to interpersonal relations,” said Sumitomo Life’s Araki. People may feel more at ease talking about medical and cancer insurance at insurance outlets because the products are relatively simple, but that is not the case with death coverage.

Skilled saleswomen are thus at a premium, Araki said. For the time being, the future of the seiho ladies appears secure as long as they have the skills to cope with the tough competition.

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