Photo/IllutrationKunio Yokoyama, president of Japan Post Co., left, and Mitsuhiko Uehira, president of Japan Post Insurance Co., apologize at a news conference in Tokyo on July 10. (The Asahi Shimbun)

An old trick used by dodgy door-to-door vendors in Japan is to use the somewhat vague phrase “no ho kara,” which usually means simply “from” but could also mean “from the direction of.” So if some say something like “shiyakusho (municipal government) no ho kara” or “shobosho (fire department) no ho kara,” that can mean either “from the municipal government” and “from the fire department” or “from the direction of” these facilities.

Unscrupulous door-to-door vendors peddling products like fire extinguishers can use this trick, “I’m from (the direction of ) the fire department,” to gain entry into people's homes. They can say they didn’t lie because they only said “no ho kara,” not just “kara” (from).

But dishonest post office staff who sold insurance policies of Japan Post Insurance Co. did not have to use the phrase “no ho kara” because they really were Japan Post employees and actually came “from” the company.

The life insurance arm of the Japan Post group, which was created through the privatization of the huge state-run business offering postal and financial services, has uncovered a staggering number of cases in which sales people used inappropriate tactics, including encouraging customers to cancel contracts and switch to new policies that were disadvantageous.

“My mother trusted Japan Post and bought a (new Japan Post) life insurance policy as she was advised to do (by the Japan Post salesperson),” said the angry son of a woman in her 80s who is a victim of the questionable sales practice. “It’s just like a swindle,” he told The Asahi Shimbun.

His mother was cajoled into canceling her endowment insurance and buying a new policy less advantageous for her, according to her son.

There were also numerous cases in which customers were forced to make double premium payments for both new and terminated contracts for several months. They were deceived by salespeople who said the old contract could not be canceled for six months after the purchase of a new one.

Numerous Japan Post sales staff members resorted to such dishonest tactics simply to meet their sales quotas and win performance-based incentives. They apparently had no qualms about going against the interests of customers. The group has uncovered as many as 93,000 cases of inappropriate insurance contracts to date.

The Japan Post group, which is still majority owned by the government and seeking to sell off shares to the public, is an entity that is like a dual-personality monster.

The postal and financial services behemoth projects an image of trust and safety because it is backed by the government. But its true self seems to be a business entity driven by a money-first ethos that imposes unreasonably tough sales quotas on its sales squad and is mired in a corporate culture that is even more relentless than private-sector financial institutions.

The group obviously tried to maintain or raise its stock price by pumping up profits. But its misguided strategy has backfired big time.

A television commercial for Japan Post Insurance that used to be aired featured the catchphrase saying, “We will bring customers a sense of security through our encounters with them.”

I wonder how many Japanese are now regretting their encounters with the Japan Post employees who have sold them life insurance policies.

The company will face a formidable challenge as it tries to regain the public's trust.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 14

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.